Sunday, August 29, 2010

200 Words A Day

A new academic year is starting, and so I've been going through the hair-raising transition between my summer schedule and my academic year schedule.

My summer schedule is calm and contemplative. Every week-day I go to my library carrel and work on my writing. I take a break for lunch. I check up on things in my office if I'm feeling brave. I return to my carrel in the afternoon. After dinner, I practice music, and then take it easy until bedtime. Sometimes I gather with friends over lunch or dinner. Every now and then I take a day off to have a music day with my musician friends -- the neighbors say they have appreciated our free "concerts"! It's a nice schedule -- productive and soothing and soul-restoring.

Notice that I wrote that paragraph in the present-tense. Apparently I still don't want to accept that in fact this has all changed this past week!

My academic year schedule looks very different. I rise early to fit a run in before the busyness begins. I try to squeeze in a short time in my carrel to continue work on my research and writing. Then I go to my office to prepare for class. Then I teach my class(es) -- one or two each day, squeezing in a quick lunch when I can. Then I have office hours. If students don't show up, I catch up on e-mail, administrative work, and/or grading. Most late-afternoons I have meetings. After dinner I practice music, and then spend a couple of hours reading for class, or grading. "Where's the free time?" you may be wondering. There isn't any during the week. I am lucky to get a full night's sleep. I can get away with taking a little free time on the weekends. But the weekends are also time to catch up on household chores. And, once the semester gets rolling, entire weekends can be taken up by grading. (Grading philosophy papers is very time-consuming.)

To try to stave off despair in this onslaught of intense busyness, I've tried a couple of strategies: (1) set up a good schedule and trust it to help me accomplish all that I find meaningful; (2) live in the present and remember that I actually like most of what I do!; and, new this semester: (3) adopt a new plan for my research time.

This new plan is called "200 Words A Day." I was inspired by this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education (apologies if you cannot access it -- I have an online subscription and am not sure if the articles are available to everyone. I hope at least this one is!).

Since you can spend all of your research and writing time tinkering (especially if your time is very limited) -- reading, note-taking, editing previously written text -- it can be hard to sustain forward momentum on actually writing. So, my new rule is to start each writing and research session by writing 200 new words of text towards an actual article or book project each day. Then I can spend the remainder of my time tinkering to my heart's content. 200 words is not a lot. But the daily discipline of it adds up over time. And it is giving me a satisfying sense of continued progress even amidst all of the busyness.

It is a clear goal, and it is manageable. It usually doesn't take very long. So far, I always easily go over the limit. It gives me the chance to get on paper ideas that have long been churning around in my mind but that I've delayed actually writing until I read that one more article first! If reading said article causes me to modify the text later, that's fine (I can deal with that during my more open, tinkering time). But I need to be doing a better job of writing text, and this approach creates regular space for doing so.

Lately (especially as I saw the end of summer approach), I have been getting overwhelmed with the complexity of my research and the many tasks I have to do, so that when I face a small chunk of time to work on it, I can get paralyzed trying to choose what is most important to do: read this, or that? Look up this, or that? Write for this paper, or that one? Respond to this person who has checked in with me about something related to my research, or that person?

So, this new approach is a breakthrough for me. As I face my small window of research opportunity each day (sometimes as small as one hour), I know exactly how to start! 200 words of text! But which project? On weekdays, it is my article; on weekends, it is a book project. So even that question is answered! Then I look at my outline, or at what I wrote the day before, and just write what I'm most interested in at that moment!

From there, I can spend the whole remainder of the time writing, or after I hit 200 words (or finish my thought), then I can shift to the other research-related tasks that need attention.

For this reason alone, I approach the new academic year with some optimism!

Actually, all of my classes do look good this semester. The students do start off the year with wonderful enthusiasm! It is great to see! And students have been clamoring to get into my classes -- this happened last semester too. It's nice to see how interested they are in philosophy and peace studies!

Happy new year to all of my academic-schedule friends!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Depression or Faith Crisis?

I found an excellent book on depression. It is Jon Allen's Coping with Depression: From Catch-22 to Hope. I mentioned it last year because I found this online summary of major themes from the book. But I recently bought the book and am finding it really helpful.

My own depression is complex. It has not been incapacitating, but it has slowed me down. I gradually started losing sight of my life goals -- those goals that give life a sense of meaning and purpose -- and became more focused on just getting through the day-to-day. My life goals have not been completely stalled, because the day-to-day is largely structured in ways that help me make progress towards these goals, but I've lost a kind of sustaining joy: the joy of knowing why the day-to-day matters.

I am making slow but real progress in recovering. My buying a house last year, my active musical involvement, and my picking up running again, are very good signs. Slight hints of occasional joy or interest have become real glimpses and then even actual moods that last longer and longer.

So, lately, now that I've had the time and energy to reflect more fully and productively on all of this, guided by excellent counseling and the above-mentioned book, I've been thinking about the meaning of life again.

And I have been taking an interest again in spiritual dimensions of psychological issues.

I finally have to confess to myself that I've been in a serious faith crisis. This surprises me, because I am a person of very strong faith. And, indeed, the nature of this faith crisis is a bit unusual. It has nothing at all to do with questioning whether there is a God. On the contrary, I have been sure that God has been right here with me through everything, at my side at every moment. I have even had an ongoing appreciation of God's presence, sure that it is God's presence that has been sustaining me as I go through the motions. When good things happen, I remember to thank God. In my classes when questions of religion come up, I fiercely defend the validity of considering a spiritual dimension to reality and don't let my students dismiss this perspective without insisting that they define their terms carefully and construct actual arguments. "I know how secular academia has become, but does that make it true?! I ask you to critically reflect on everything else you take for granted, so you have to critically reflect on this too!"

So, what is my faith crisis then? What is different is that I haven't been talking with God much lately. It used to be that I was aware of God's presence and had a kind of friendly ongoing rapport with God. I would talk to God.

But these recent years have been more like I am aware of God right beside me but I hold a stony silence. I haven't turned to look directly at God myself, or address God in the kind of conversational way I used to.

So I finally thought to ask myself, "Am I angry at God?" To my surprise, I realized I was.

Why? I think there are two reasons, and they are related. In my own struggles, I am upset that we are made so imperfect and vulnerable. I have felt the sense that, unless I get everything lined up exactly right, my life flies out of control. And I can't keep everything lined up exactly right. I keep losing my grip on something or other. So I have felt I try and try but things keep getting worse instead of better because I cannot do it all perfectly.

The second reason I am upset is that I feel that the human relationship with the planet is equally fragile. Unless we live with perfect harmoniousness with the natural world, we are going to destroy the planet, or at least the conditions for human life, taking down lots of other life forms with us along the way!

For a long time, I blamed myself: I'm not perfect enough to handle my own life well; nor have I put my energies effectively enough into work that would help humans in general live in a more balanced relationship to the natural world.

Counseling has helped me realize (a) the hubris behind my self-blame (am I really that powerful?), and (b) how self-destructive and counter-productive such self-blame is.

While I know intellectually that I should let go of blame altogether, I ended up shifting the blame to human nature more generally, and then to God for making humans this way.

"How could you make us so stupid and so powerful at the same time?! What were you thinking?! What a recipe for disaster!"

But now that I've gotten these assumptions out in the open, I can critically reflect on them. After all, something else I have been learning in counseling is that all-or-nothing thinking fuels depression.

Is it really true that I have to be perfect or my whole life spins out of control and falls apart? No. Anyone who objectively looks at my life would call it quite effective and successful, overall.

Is it really true that we humans have to get everything exactly right to avoid destroying the planet? The objective evidence says: the planet is still alive; humans are not extinct; lots of biological life forms are still alive. Of course we don't know what the future holds. But we haven't completely blown it yet, anyway.

Maybe we humans are not entirely stupid, nor as powerful as we often like to think. Maybe neither my life nor the fate of the planet is as fragile as I sometimes think. At any rate, I can look at what is, right now, and see that there are a lot of reasons for hope.

So, once I bring my spiritual crisis to light, and articulate the fear that is behind it, I see how inappropriate it is to blame God for something I don't even know is true! Once I consider the truth of my assumptions, I see how questionable they really are.

The actual evidence says: my life is not bad; the planet is still alive. Yes, it is good to keep striving -- the world may well need our best efforts. And there is certainly great spiritual value in striving to live a balanced life harmonious with others and with the natural world. But getting depressed enough to give up is totally counter-productive. That is not helping anyone, and such misery is not what God wants for me, or anyone else, either.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Feeling the Effects

A couple of days ago I saw something in the newspaper saying that 6 out of 10 Americans have been adversely affected by the financial crisis (losing jobs, or having reduced salary, hours, or benefits).

My reaction was surprise. The first question that popped into my mind was, "who are the other 4 out of 10?!"

I don't think I know anyone who has not suffered one of the above financial set-backs.

So my question is serious. Who are those other 4 out of 10? Have they just held steady, or have they actually gained, financially? I really would have thought that the percentage of those who directly feel the crisis would be larger.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Alternative Energy

I heard in the news recently that there was a poll that showed that Americans were very interested in the development of new sources of energy. Americans are worried about too much dependency on oil.

I've been thinking a lot lately about using our own physical energy to do more.

For a big portion of my life, I did not have a car, and so I got myself around primarily by using my own energy -- walking and bicycling. There was a time of my life when I bicycled 10 miles to work and 10 miles back each day. Other times I lived in cities or towns, making bicycling and walking distances easily manageable. The first several times that I traveled around England, it was by bicycle. In those days, my choices were partially motivated by financial considerations, but also by principle. I wanted to demonstrate that it was possible.

During one of these times, when I was living in a city in the U.S., I was walking back home one day carrying a load of supplies I had bought. I was tired and, I'll admit, kind of miserable. But I happened to walk past a gym. Through large windows, I could see dozens of people putting forth frantic effort that was not actually doing any real work in the world. I suddenly stopped and watched for a bit, amazed. I realized that these people had all most likely driven here to do this! Yes, it was admirable that they were trying to stay in shape. But the sight of them with their earphones on, some reading magazines at their exercise machines, each lost in their own world, putting forth all this effort that was not actually powering anything else, struck me as incredibly bizarre. If they walked or bicycled to run their errands, as I was doing, they could integrate their exercise into their everyday lives and not need to take extra time to do it. By powering themselves by their own energy, they would save gas and ease global climate change.

Yet, I knew and still know why people do things this way. Getting in your car is safe and easy. Working out at the gym gives you a sense of motivation and security (because of all the others around) in a safe setting conducive to distractions if you need distractions to take your mind off the effort of exertion.

Integrating exercise into your life by using your own energy to power the running of errands is just not as fun. The weather keeps changing. You see strangers on the streets, not all of whom are friendly all the time. You may have to travel through questionable parts of town. You feel vulnerable when you are not enclosed in a lockable fast-moving metal box. Our towns and cities are not usually built with pedestrians in mind -- sidewalks give out; you have to take the long way around because the short way is reserved for motor vehicles; many crossings are highly dangerous. And carrying heavy bags of stuff on a long walk just isn't fun. Since you have to stay alert, you cannot distract yourself as at the gym, and so you are aware of the dangers and your own effort every step of the way.

Furthermore, it has become socially unacceptable to show up at public places all hot and sweaty. Gyms are the only places where being hot and sweaty in public is acceptable, and yet they have showers, giving the message that you must clean yourself up as quickly as possible after exercising to be presentable again.

Yet, all of this is real. It is good for us to use our bodies for work and to get out into the world and confront all of its uncertainties.

And, our own energy is a very real energy source. I think it is worth thinking about whether there are more ways we can use our own energy in place of fossil fuels. Do our villages, towns, and cities need to be re-designed to make it more possible to run our errands on foot again?

Also, I should clarify that I am not opposed to gyms. I appreciate the way they are constructed to bring people together to support each other, inspire each other, and learn from each other to develop comprehensive fitness. But why can't we hook up the exercise machines in gyms to make use of all of that human power? I had that thought too, on that day when I paused to watch the people in the gym. Not too long ago, I did hear that a college was thinking of doing this as an experiment: having the gym machines generate some of the building's electricity. Why haven't we been doing this all along?

So, one "alternative" energy source we might want to seriously consider is making more use of human energy again.

Friday, June 25, 2010

New Grocery Store

I'm sure my avid readers have been dying to hear about our new grocery store, especially after my anticipatory dream (see my comment to that post)!

Well, I am happy to report that it is quite nice. Like in my dream, I was happy to see that they still have the little grocery carts (small ones that are two-tiered. I put my re-usable bags on the bottom tier, and pile my groceries in the top. These smaller grocery carts are much easier to maneuver than the full-sized ones). Unlike in my dream, it wasn't hard to find things. The grocery store is arranged like a grocery store, thank goodness!

This new grocery store gives you a credit for bringing your own bags! I had already gotten in the habit of bringing my own re-usable bags, so this was a happy surprise, to find myself rewarded for this! Even more amazing, if you bring three bags but only use two, they still give you the credit for all three! Ok, it's only 3 cents per bag, but, still, it's nice that they are trying to provide an incentive.

The other remarkable thing about our new grocery store is that there is the sound of thunder just before the produce gets misted! I'm not kidding!

They have just about everything that the previous grocery store had, though I'm still trying to train them to supply some of what I buy on a regular basis. They have some extra items, too, that the previous store did not have, like Smucker's all-natural crunchy peanut butter, which I never succeeded in convincing the previous store to get. One time, they got a shipment by accident and they sold out very quickly. When I asked about this, the employee I asked just said, "Oh, it was a mistake," and was not at all interested in hearing that I thought it might be a good idea for them to stock it regularly! I'm glad to see that the new store is taking note that the crunchy kind sells much better than the smooth.

We live in an economically depressed area, and I have come to accept that we just can't have the variety that urban areas have. In fact, this simpifies life. But when I see businesses not taking customer interests seriously, I do worry that they are missing out on potential opportunities to improve economic conditions. So, while I did generally like the old store and was sorry to see it leave, I very much appreciate this new store's eagerness to respond well to consumer suggestions.

Monday, June 21, 2010

What Are We To Learn From Oil Spill?

Like a lot of people, I have been greatly troubled by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The first morning that I woke up to the news about the accident and the spill, I took notice, but on the second or third morning I woke up distinctly alarmed upon hearing that they had still not stopped the spill. "That's bad," I thought, sitting up in bed. "It already was bad, but this is really bad." I had the uneasy feeling that if they had not stopped it yet, maybe they really didn't know how.

Little did I know that we would still be watching with horror a full two months later.

There are lots of obvious lessons we already can learn from this, and I will not re-hash those. Instead, I thought I would share some thoughts I have not heard widely articulated (although it might just be that I have missed them).

1. Have we finally encountered a technical problem we simply cannot solve?

Ok, I have heard this view articulated a little, but I would like to reflect a bit on this anyway. To some extent, it is true in the present. We haven't solved it. Obviously, a lot of people greatly want this problem solved -- and some of those people have great power and resources available to them. Yet, the spill goes on. So, it is true that we cannot solve it -- yet.

But what are the reasons? It might be that the solution is out there -- perhaps submitted by someone or some group, but not yet considered by those who are processing the suggestions that people have sent in. Perhaps they even did consider it, but rejected it.

Or, perhaps the solution is out there and is even in the queue for future implementation -- after other suggestions are tried first.

Or, perhaps the solution (something that we humans could implement that would really work) has not been thought of by anyone yet. Will someone finally think it? Will that be a person who can get the idea heard by those who have the power to implement it? Will those in power be perceptive enough to see that it would work, and will they choose to try it?

Or could it even be that this just is impossible for humans to fix?

Mixed into my comments above are really two questions: (1) can humans technically solve this problem? (2) are our social systems organized effectively enough that if someone does find a technical solution, it can be identified and implemented?

2. Money and power are not enough.

I think this is a striking example of how money and power alone are not enough to solve all problems. We also need good ideas. These cannot simply be commanded.

3. Money is strange.

Something else that has really struck me is how calm BP seems to be about the money issue. All along, they've calmly said, "We'll pay," and tried to assure everyone that the company itself is in no grave danger from this setback.

I don't know what to make of this.

First I consider the possibility that they mean it. But if they do, if their fortunes are so vast that they can afford (a) the wasteage of their resource, (b) the money to try to stop the spill, (c) the money to clean up, and (d) the money to help out everyone who has economically suffered from this -- if all of this is truly no problem, then maybe they are not as worried about it all as the rest of us wish they were! Maybe that's why the problem is not being solved faster. Maybe it's par for the course for them. "These things happen; we'll figure it out eventually and will be able to afford it..."

But then my next thought is to be absolutely amazed at the thought of their having so much money. Why do they have so much money? All around me, I see financial worries. I see jobs being cut, programs being cut. For mysterious reasons that no one seems to understand, money seems to be evaporating. And, yet, a company like BP claims to be able to cover the huge expense of this oil spill no problem.

Is that where all the money has gone? It got sucked up by huge, profitable companies?

What would have happened to all of that money if the explosion and oil spill had not happened? Would it have stayed locked away wherever it was it had been hiding?

Why have we let our economic system evolve to this? Why do some individuals and some companies have huge amounts of money while others struggle to survive -- and some do not make it?

Of course, we have to consider the other possibility too: maybe BP is lying (or is self-deceived) about how much it really can afford. Maybe it's talking the talk but when it comes down to it will show itself unable to walk the walk. Then what?

4. It's not just about money, anyway...

Yet, the problem is not just an economic one. The health and well-being of many living organisms and ecological systems is at stake. This includes, but is not limited to, humans. The long-term environmental consequences remain unknown.

5. Theological perspective

As I ponder this situation and pray about it, I find myself explaining to God, "Look, we humans can be greedy, prideful, and misguided, but even in this we didn't really mean the harm that we have caused. We're just trying to tap into energy sources to fuel all of our activity, creativity, productivity. Is the earth so fragile that we puny creatures can really puncture a hole that turns into a mortal wound for the entire planet? Or, even if so, can it really be true that we have the power to create a problem that we lack the power to solve? Why should we have the power to create a fatal problem, and lack the power to solve this? Would You really have made us this way?"

And so I find my worry about this situation to potentially be a kind of faith crisis. What do I believe about the planet -- is it that fragile? What do I believe about human nature -- are we flawed in that way (able to create fatal problems we cannot solve)? And, deeper than all of this, what do I believe about God -- the kind of Creator and Sustainer that God is, the kind of Love God has for us?

And so when I arrive to these questions in my prayers, I find myself reassured. Yes, the problem is serious, but we must not give up. I've looked at video images and diagrams myself, wondering if I could learn enough to offer helpful suggestions. I've hoped that, even if not, my putting some thought in that direction may somehow summon the powers of our collective consciousness and help someone better trained than I in such matters to find a solution. I find myself believing in the power of prayer, for how it might aid the flow of ideas and insights within this shared mental space of collective consciousness. I try as well to summon the healing powers of the earth itself.

There is much that we can and urgently need to learn from a situation like this. I do wish that we could figure out how to live with better environmental sensitivity and care. I do think our exploitative attitude towards the natural world is problematic. I worry a lot that we have created a system in which we are becoming subservient to the care and feeding of monstrous systems that do not in fact take care of us and support our worthy goals, but serve only to benefit those who are already wealthy and powerful. For the collective spiritual well-being of all of us, as well as for the physical well-being of all life on the planet, we do desperately need to make changes.

And so I look for signs that this event might be a wake-up call. Maybe we can survive it and learn from it. Maybe it will inspire the kinds of changes that will help us to live more harmoniously with the natural world and with each other.

This is my prayer -- a prayer for a solution, and for redemption.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Future Imaging Workshops

When I was an undergraduate student at a Quaker college, we did a Future Imaging Workshop as part of a Peace Studies class. This workshop was based on Elise Boulding's "Imaging a World Without Weapons" workshops, developed from the work of Warren Ziegler.

These workshops have participants individually imagine a better world 30 years into the future. Then individuals get together in small groups and share their visions. The small groups then share highlights with the full group.

Then, back in small groups, participants start thinking back from that point 30 years into the future as "historians," to try to "re"construct how the world "got" to this better place. What were things like one year ago? Five years ago? Another five years before that? Etc.

After the small groups construct these "histories," they share highlights with the larger group.

The final stage is to come back to the present and put yourself back in the picture: what are you going to do in the coming year that will help move the world towards this better future?

My doing this as an undergraduate had a profound effect on my life.

First of all, it gave me the confidence to be optimistic.

Secondly, it taught me that it's not that hard, after all, to come to reasonable consensus on what a better world looks like.

Thirdly, it gave my own life direction. It showed me how my emerging aspiration to become a professor could be part of creating a better future. I no longer felt so torn between my activist self and my scholarly self. I saw that the two could come together.

Now here I am, 20 years later, realizing I really have been doing this! I even started a Peace Studies program at my college!

So, what did I do to honor this realization?

Of course I had the students in my Peace Studies class do this workshop this semester!

Now, I knew that just because the workshop had a profound effect on me didn't mean that it would have the same effect on my students today. Sadly, the problems of the world seem more dire today. Also, I do not teach at a Quaker college, and our Peace Studies program is new: maybe our students are not as primed to get as much out of this workshop as I had been.

But I still wanted to try.

At the beginning of the semester, when I already challenged my students to consider what a better world would be like, I heard a lot of pessimism. The pessimism was not just about the possibility of a better world, but also about "whether we can even agree upon what this would look like," as the students repeatedly said. Inwardly I smiled to myself, thinking, "they have no idea how well-prepared I am to hear, and ignore, this pessimism!"

Throughout the semester, we studied a lot about peace and nonviolence, and the students were amazed, as usual, to learn how powerful and effective it all can be.

Then at the end, we launched into the workshop.

At the stage where they first met in small groups, I asked them to identify and note on paper the points of convergence in their visions, and the major differences. Then they had to talk through their differences, to see if any of them could be resolved. The assignment was set up to make it look like that phase was the central point of the assignment: the attempt resolve their differences.

I floated among the small groups to observe, and as the groups came to the "differences" question, I saw a tidal wave of alarm start to form and ripple from small group to small group. "We can't find substantial differences!" the students exclaimed to me as I would come around. "What are we to do?!"

When we re-convened as a large group, I had the students process this. "Come on," I said. "You couldn't find differences? What's going on? Are you all just being too polite?"

"No, really!" the students replied. "We have built enough trust in this course that we can be honest with each other! Seriously! We honestly couldn't find major differences!" The few differences they could identify were not so much about the vision as about preliminary thoughts about how to get to that better future.

The students talked with enthusiasm and excitement about how much this course had transformed them, about how they came into the course from very different positions, but what they studied really changed their thinking in substantial ways.

I let the students talk, and was myself amazed at the collective emergence of a realization that it really is not that hard to come to consensus on what a better world would look like. What most pleased me was their realization that their earlier pessimism was a false pessimism, a failure of imagination, rooted in ignorance (not knowing anything about the history of how positive change happens), and reinforced by laziness. "Thinking positive change is not possible is really just a rationalization for laziness," one student said while many others nodded. The energy level in the room was high. They glimpsed the excitement of devoting their own lives to change. They suddenly saw that they could make a difference--and their own lives would be more exciting and fulfilling if they tried.

In the workshop, they still had the hard task now of becoming "historians of the future" and then finally putting themselves specifically into the picture, but now they took on these challenging tasks with focus and commitment.

I saved reading their final papers until last, when I did the final grading for all of my courses. It was a good call. It is the first time I have finished up grading feeling really happy and hopeful. Their papers were creative, personal, complex, positive, and hopeful.

Yes, this workshop was every bit as powerful for them as it had been for me 20 years ago.

And my seeing the students through the workshop was powerful for me again too. This generation of young people is looking for hope, good ideas, direction. They care about the world's problems, and really do want to make a positive difference. Sadly enough, they are not given enough opportunities to develop hope. They are not challenged enough to move past a kind of habitual, cultural cynicism.

But if you make a space for young people to develop their hope and ground it in knowledge and skills, they participate eagerly. They are starving for hope that they can believe in. They want to live meaningful, positive lives. They don't actually like the facile cynicism they have inherited, but too often, it is that cynicism that is reinforced, and their occasional challenges to it get quickly shot down.

I feel pleased that I have helped let loose into the world a small band of optimists who are now better prepared to defend their optimistic stance and issue a challenge of hope to the cynics they encounter. They have seen through the facade. They know now that the cynicism is not rooted in anything real; rather it is rooted in something lacking: a lack of knowledge; a lack of commitment; a lack of confidence. They now know that knowledge, commitment, and confidence can be gained and developed. They now know that one's life is enriched by taking the time to cultivate hope and commitment.

And so I too am feeling more hopeful about the world again.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Some General Catching Up

Academics

Another academic year has drawn to a close. It's been a full year, and in many ways a solid good year. But it has also been a year laced with anxiety as our university has been coming to terms with a changing economic context. "We have to do things differently," was the common refrain, but no one really knows what that means yet.

We've had financial concerns for years already, so we're used to it; but we also feel we've scaled back so much already it's hard to tell what more we can cut.

Our faculty is starting to shrink in the subtle way resulting from not hiring visiting replacements. Next year, we will be down one faculty member in our department because of not hiring a sabbatical replacement. Already this year, our classes have bulged. Next year they are likely to bulge even more. Since we are a small liberal arts college with reasonably small classes to begin with, I do not regard this as a catastrophe. My class sizes still are not what I had when I taught in graduate school, so I know I can handle this. But, still, it is a disappointment. It begins to change how we teach.

Right after final grades were due, I had two days of all-day faculty development workshops, then Commencement weekend, then two more days of workshops. Yesterday was the first break in this intense schedule. Yet I still had/have a lot to do.

Other updates:

Roof

Yes, my roof is finally being done. Right now, in fact. This very moment. The roofers arrived about 15 minutes ago. I should perhaps flee, but I'm kind of curious. And I also want them to feel welcome to help themselves to coffee, water, cookies.

My pulling snow off the roof all winter did prevent any further leaks, I am happy to report, but I am very glad to be getting the problem fully fixed now.

Lawn Mowing

Now that I have a house, I have to cut my grass. So I bought one of those non-gas-powered push mowers. I could feel the curious eyes of my neighbors on me as I pulled it out, put it together, and then got to work.

It worked like a dream! What's more, it was FUN! As I mowed, I wondered why people need gasoline. If you have a non-self-propelled push mower, you still have to push it around. What's the gas doing? Spinning the blades. Maybe that eases some of the work. But I didn't find my mower that hard to push around. It does give me a good workout, but I don't mind that. I welcome it. I need all the exercise I can get!

It takes me about an hour to do my whole lawn. It looks really nice when I'm finished. The mower makes a nice "flttt flttt flttt" sound -- much nicer than the sound of power mowers!

My neighbors come out and come over and talk with me when I cut my grass. They start by admiring my mower as they eye it skeptically, sure that something so simple could not possibly be very effective. So I gush about how wonderful it is. They admit it does a nice job.

How long will it be before I see another appear on the block? I'll keep you posted on this!

Music

I'm playing baroque flute at a memorial service in a couple of weeks. The memorial service is actually for the philosophy professor I replaced. I feel honored to have been asked to play. As the day approaches, I'm starting to feel a little nervous. I've never played for a memorial service before. What kind of music does one play? What is the music for -- comfort or catharsis or both? Have I chosen good pieces? Will I be able to do justice to the occasion?

I've also been learning piccolo, and I have just joined a community band for the summer, probably playing flute (modern flute), but I did indicate that I play piccolo too. Since modern flute and piccolo are not my main instruments (I would say baroque flute really is, followed closely by 19th century flute, a.k.a. Irish flute), I'm hoping to be seated last chair. There's a music school in my area, and I already know that all of the other flute players are accomplished modern flute experts, so no pride lost at all. I have a lot to learn about how to play this kind of music in this kind of context.

Running

The last time I seriously picked up running, I then twisted my ankle in a non-running moment. Although it was not a running injury as such, I think I was in a weakened condition from pushing myself too hard. At any rate, it sidelined me. Then the ice and snow came. So I lost it.

After a couple of false starts and long lulls again, I finally got it going again. I am in Week 7 of my new program, and it is going very well. Starting in early spring was a good plan -- the weather keeps getting nicer! So my hope is that by the time the weather changes again, I'll be so into this and so fit that I'll be able this time to keep it going through the winter, and forever thereafter!

I'm doing a lot better than I thought I would. But last week I did start pushing myself too hard. And then after 3 hours in the sun for graduation, I was so wiped out it was kind of scary. I realized I was fatigued on many levels, and told myself it was imperative to take an easy week this week. So this week I've refused to time my runs, and let myself return to walk/runs, based purely on how I feel from moment to moment. My "discipline" has been to not push. And I'm feeling much better. Sometimes this is what we need: the discipline to cut back, relax, let go a little.

Spirits

My move last fall dramatically changed my life and I'm much happier overall. But my life is still not completely where I want it to be. I still have not made the progress I want to make on my writing projects. I'm still half-thrilled, half-overwhelmed by my responsibilities in developing our new Peace Studies program. I still have too much a tendency to sacrifice my own goals in favor of what others want from me, but I'm better at catching myself, questioning that, and feeling more protective of and assertive of my goals. I realize I have a responsibility to nurture, develop, and live true to my sense of call -- no one else can do that for me.

So, I am making progress overall, even if that progress is slow. Slow but real progress is better than false progress, temporary fragile progress, or no progress at all.

State of the World

I am very worried about the BP oil situation in the Gulf and its environmental repercussions. I am also worried about the financial crisis.

I hold out hope that these problems are a wake-up call that will precipitate positive changes.

And I am ever alert to ways that I can, in my own daily life, encourage a more positive future.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Going Without a Grocery Store

The grocery store in my small town closed last week. Before you worry too much about me, though, I hasten to assure you that another company has bought it and will renovate it and re-open it in a month or so. For a long time, we were not sure that even that was going to happen. So we went from worrying that we would be without a grocery store forever, to being relieved that we would only have to do without one for a month or so.

In the weeks leading up to the closure, the shelves got barer and barer. For a while, they kept re-stocking the basics, so even though you could tell something was changing, you still had confidence that you could get what you really needed. The first change was just that variety was reduced, but this was actually somewhat refreshing, simplifying your choices. Then there were things you wanted but didn't really need that weren't there anymore. You saw you could live without those. Then things you thought you needed weren't there any more, and you began to get creative with what was available -- so you realized those "needs" weren't real needs either.

Then they stopped restocking at all. Those last couple of weeks were most bizarre. A lot of people did give up at that point, and drove the extra 20-80 miles to shop elsewhere. But quite a few people continued to go, not so much for the great closing deals (80% off a jar of obscure mustard that you weren't even really sure would taste good, for example), but out of curiosity and maybe nostalgia. Whole aisles were now cordoned off. The meat section was closed. Unrelated items were corralled together at the ends of aisles.

Customers spoke kind words to the staff, and gently asked whether they'd have jobs with the new company. Many would not -- a hard blow in our already-poor area in this uncertain economy.

Occasionally, I would see an image of a grocery store in the paper, and it sent a strange pang through my heart. One was simply in one of the comics on the comics pages -- a cartoon family doing their grocery shopping while the cartoon kids acted up. I studied the drawing with a kind of amazement. "That's right!" I thought. "Most people have ordinary grocery stores, and think nothing of it!" Such an idea seemed exotic and far away. I studied the bananas and apples and oranges in the picture with considerable envy.

It reminded me of seeing pictures of home when traveling abroad, especially in third-world countries. Images of first-world luxury seemed like a far-off dream. I wasn't even sure they were really real.

So, now, I have a hard time believing that we will someday have a normal grocery store again.

The last day, most aisles were closed. About three of them had a few items on a couple of shelves near the aisles. One cash register was open. A few customers milled about slowly and quietly. No one was doing any serious shopping, but everyone tried to buy something, in order to have contact with the last cashier, to justify her last day of work.

Now the store is closed, and we wonder what transformation may be happening behind the dark windows. Many of us try to shop locally as much as possible: the health food store has increased their produce; convenience stores are carrying more basic grocery items than usual. Local restaurants are seeing a boom. My relationship with food seems different now. I have to plan more carefully, think about what I want or need and where best to get it.

It's going to be interesting to see how we all adjust to being without a grocery store for the next month or so. It shakes us not just individually, but collectively as well. In a small town, a grocery store is a common meeting place. Now we find ourselves running into each other in different places -- our collective social life is rearranged. We all relate to our town, and to each other, in new ways. It is actually somewhat refreshing.

The day the new store opens will be a big day. We will feel a sense of relief, and perhaps even amazement, when we all gather back at the site where we used to meet. But it will be different, and we will not be able to help but compare it to the dying days of the old. Our relief will be mixed with sadness for those who lost their jobs.

And we might be sad too for the return to normality after a time demanding creativity and innovation: a time that brought us closer to each other, remembering to rediscover and treasure what we still had.

But that day is not here yet. Now we embark on the new experience of exploring our village in new ways, seeing what we can find, learning what we most need and what we can do without.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Students and Colleagues and God

I continue to work hard with my students (in two of my classes, actually) to help them understand God and religion in new ways.

Here are some of the latest moments:

In Modern Philosophy, we are now reading Leibniz, and went over his version of the Cosmological Argument (the argument that says there has to be a "First Cause"). To my surprise, some of the students were impressed with this argument. One then said, "Ok, I'm convinced that there has to be some uncaused cause as a first cause, but why call this 'God'? What does the notion of 'first cause' have to do with heaven and hell?"

"You are assuming that some notion of heaven and hell is necessarily part of the concept of 'God'?" I asked, for clarification.

"Well, doesn't it have to be?" the student replied, bewildered.

That launched us into a discussion about the meanings of powerful words, that led to questions such as "what does 'God' really mean?" "what does 'religion' really mean?" and "what does 'Christianity' really mean?"

There's a lot I could say about how I tried to reply to these general questions of meanings of words (very short summary: I keep trying to tell my students that philosophy teaches you to be multi-lingual in your own language, to hold tentatively to definitions of key words and be open to the variety of ways that others define these terms, and be clear about your own definitions when you use these words), but I'll fast forward to a particular moment in this discussion that amazed me.

While we were talking about "religion," I was trying to get students to see past what I described as the "abuses" of this word, when religion is used to scare people and control their behavior. "That's not religion itself -- that's an abuse of religion!" (Yes, I was departing in this moment from my flexible stance towards words, but that was because the students were so locked into their own cynical attitude towards the word, and I wanted them to see that that's not what religion meant to some of the philosophers we were studying.)

One atheist student was stunned and almost angry. He exclaimed in outrage, "how can you say that's not what religion is?! Of course that's what religion is! That's exactly what religion is -- wielding power to control what other people think and do!"

"No," I insisted. "That's the abuse of religion. Religion itself is something else entirely!" I then described it as a quest for understanding the nature of ultimate reality and humans' relationship to that reality. I described it as the questioning of whether the universe is just an accident, indifferent to life and consciousness -- or infused with consciousness, maybe even ultimately caused by consciousness, pervaded with love and care.

"But we can never answer these questions," one student said.

Another added, "I appreciate all that, but that's just 'thought' -- not religion!"

"Yes, let's just nix the word 'religion'" a third suggested, "and call what you are describing, 'thought.'"

I sighed. "Ok, we can nix the word, and replace it with a new one, but then people will seize onto the power of whatever new word we choose and abuse that one too. So we'll change it again. And again. And what happens every time we do that? We lose our history. We make a break from the earlier, nobler, original meanings of the words. In fact," I went on, "this tragedy has already happened -- and your inability to read the nobler meanings of these words when you are reading these philosophers demonstrates this tragedy. Why should we let the abusers of the language have the power to blind us to the nobler meanings? Why should we let the abusers of the language cut us off from really understanding the wisdom that history can teach us? Why should we be complicit in giving them this power?"

Class, unfortunately, was now over, but the students were buzzing as they left, bewildered, intrigued, and in some cases maybe even outraged. This is a lot harder than I would have thought!

Next incident: I go to a gospel concert. It is an amazing event. The singers represent many forms of diversity: not only black and white, but Native American and Asian. Young and old. Mentally handicapped, mentally ill, and highly functioning, highly successful. All sexual orientations. (I know all of this because I know many of the people.) All of these people are smiling and singing together. Their affection for each other is obvious. The message is love, freedom, and radical acceptance of each other. "Now that's Christianity!" I find myself thinking, wishing my Modern Philosophy students were there, and my peace studies students, but, sadly, none of them are there, except one peace studies student in the choir.

But even if they were there, it is doubtful that they would get it...

As I depart, I hear some murmuring from some of my friends and colleagues in the audience. "I liked the music, but I had a hard time with the words."

I considered the words again. Then I realized what was going on. And I was astonished. How could English professors, and liberal pastors, not be able to grasp the intended meanings of these words?

Looking again at specific phrases, I realized that the only way they could be offended was to read "God" as "human oppressive power," instead of reading "God" as "goodness" or "love." Why do they insist on doing this?

For example, one phrase from one song was "God is mighty."

Yes, "Human oppressive power is mighty" is problematic.

But, "Love is mighty"? "Goodness is mighty"? Don't these phrases inspire hope, and give strength in times of struggle?

Or: "Order my steps in your word."

Yes, "Order my steps in submission to human oppressive power" would be ridiculous, but look where this song comes from: descendants of slaves! Are they going to be meaning this? Of course not! Simple hermeneutics then indicates that there must be something wrong with this interpretation!

So, try this instead: "Order my steps along the path of love," or "Order my steps on the path of goodness." Now the meaning changes. It's about holding strong in real love, because love is hard. It's about looking for strength not to fall into the temptations of hatred, bitterness, and despair.

How can smart, thoughtful people not get this?! Why do they cling so tightly to a negative image of God, equating God with the worst of human oppressive power?

Third incident (this from a few years back, in another class): I ask the class which concept is supposed to be tied most essentially to God. They offer all sorts of suggestions, some promising, others alarming, but never mention the one I was thinking of, so I finally offer it myself: "goodness."

The class is stunned. "What does 'goodness' have to do with 'God'?" one asks, genuinely confused.

This student's image of God was that of a stern supernatural power, insisting that we play by a hidden book of rules: rules not at all easy even to find, and when you do, almost impossible to follow -- cutting against all that we find natural, enjoyable, meaningful. Unless we can figure this out, and live in the constant pain and suffering of this "obedience," we will suffer the divine punishment of going to hell.

Once I realize that that is what some (many) students think God is, I understand why they call themselves atheists! When I try to tell them this is not what everyone means by God, they think I am just making that up.

Final incident: I recently applied for a grant to work on my book project of reconciling science and religion, but didn't get the grant. One of the reviewer's comments said, in effect, that "religion is on its way out. Such a project is irrelevant." Most of the others reflected a similar sentiment, if not so directly. I wondered what planet they were living on. Meanwhile, at Harvard, someone recently proposed instituting a religion requirement because it is so important to have a basic understanding of world religions in order to understand events in the world, but this proposal was cut down on the grounds that it is not the role of universities to teach "faith" -- universities are to teach "reason." Not only does that argument rely on really problematic misunderstandings of "faith" and "reason," but it totally misconstrues the intended purpose of the requirement! The requirement is not to indoctrinate into faith, but just to give students a working sociological and cultural understanding of world religions in order to understand, for example, the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam.

So, no wonder I am having so much trouble. I had thought that the academic world was opening up to a reconsideration of religion, even a reclamation of a more sophisticated view of religion than the highly problematic caricatures offered by the media. This may be so, but the change is not happening easily or quickly.

So I understand why I am having the difficulties I do have.

But I am sad about this.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Students and God

In Modern Philosophy, my students keep wanting to believe that the philosophers of the 1600s didn't really believe in God: they just had to pretend that they did, to avoid the wrath of the Church. I think my students really perceive all the God-talk as fake, meaningless, even maybe childish or primitive. They say they are "put off" by it.

I really try to challenge their preconceptions. I tell them that they are anachronistically reading on meanings that these philosophers did not intend. I encourage them to delete the word "God," and look in a new way at what they are actually saying: "What concepts are they associating with this word?" I have them labor over the text, while I write their findings on the board: "orderliness of the universe," "creator of all" (which I help translate as "the deepest grounding of all existence"), "omniscience" which I help translate as "everything that is is ultimately knowable by some consciousness," etc.

Then, I ask, "Do you believe any of this? Do you believe that the universe is orderly? How do you explain why there is something rather than nothing? What is the source of all being? It just accidentally came into being? How is that an answer and not a cop out? Do you think that everything that exists is at least theoretically knowable? What would it mean to exist but not be knowable at all, by any kind of consciousness?"

My students seem intrigued, or maybe even disturbed at the implication that their deepest beliefs might be something like belief in God. So, by the next class, they come back to the view that these philosophers don't really believe in God, or that's not really want "God" means, etc.

Or, even more bizarrely, they try to get around thinking about this by coming back (yes, back) to questioning Descartes' earlier claim, "I think, therefore I exist."

"You really question that?" I ask, showing my astonishment. "You really think that that is the most problematic aspect of Descartes' proof?!"

They try the Buddhist denial of Self.

"Descartes says nothing about 'self,' here!" I point out. "The claim he is making here is not the claim that Buddhists deny. Buddhism objects to sharp individuation, in favor of a view that emphasizes the interconnectedness of all being. That's very different from what Descartes is doing at this moment in his proof."

With reluctance, they turn their attention back to the God question then.

I thought it would be fun for them to realize that the notion of God may mean something more mysterious and interesting than they had originally thought, but their attitude suggests almost a moral stance against considering this in any way different from the blanket dismissal that they have been trained to make.

I am having more fun with this than it may seem. And I am certainly not trying to "convert" anyone -- I tell them "I'm not saying you have to believe this; I'm just saying you have to understand it before you are even in a position to decide whether you believe it or not."

But I am distressed at how dogmatic is their disbelief, especially when they think they are preaching against dogmatism!

This is going to be an interesting class. The students will find that the God question never does go away during the Modern period of philosophy (roughly 1600-1800). They will find that it is still not clear by the end of this time period that the notion of God is obsolete. The idea of a purely mechanistic universe develops by then, but many remain unconvinced -- and, anyway, by the early part of the 20th century, that image of the universe is found not to work because it is denied by quantum physics. The universe just is very strange--none of the oversimplified attempts to finally explain it completely have ever worked!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Taking Stock for a New Year

Happy New Year!

Ok, I realize I've not been posting to any of my blogs for a while, and I apologize for this.

Catching up from the last few posts:

Music

My remaining concerts last semester went well, I think. I played silver flute with an orchestra accompanying a chorus, and this was a new experience for me: playing in an orchestra. Most of my playing has been top line in small ensembles, or solos. So I'm usually carrying a melody line -- it's like telling a story. Orchestral playing is very different. Your job is to weave colors into a tapestry of sound. Woodwind players may sit out for long periods of time, but then, suddenly, when they are on, they are often featured. This is stressful in whole new ways. Counting rests is surprisingly hard. If you lose count, how do you figure out when to come in?! My strategy was to listen to recordings of our pieces while looking at my music, to practice counting rests and to hear exactly where to come in. So I had back-up plans for if I lost count, such as, "when the trumpets come in, that's the second beat of measure 17 of my long 24-measure rest."

It was a new and different experience for me, but I enjoyed it. And picking up modern flute again inspired me to resurrect a long-abandoned dream: to play piccolo. I am finding it challenging and fun!

The next performances were my playing Irish flute at our big Christmas service on campus. This is a very popular event -- two services, one right after the other, during an evening in the last week of classes. Lots of people from the community come as well. My job was to arrive early enough to stake out a place right in the middle of the balcony, and, at the appointed time in the service, to play from there, so that the flute would waft down from on high.

I chose two pieces that blended well together -- the first reflective, even sad; the second lifting back to joy. I picked these up by ear, so I had no written score, which turned out to be good, because this was a candlelight service, and I was sitting in the dark.

As the service started, audience filled in tightly around me (many people not noticing that I had a flute, because, again, it was dark up there!) and the service started, and of course there was other music too, and I suddenly had a moment of panic: what if I forget how my pieces go? I had thought of this ahead of time, and trained my fingers to know how to start -- but would that really work? Fortunately, it turned out not to be a problem. During the Reading before I was to play, the music returned to my mind, and I was ready.

I stood up in response to the Reading, and played. I was shaking like a leaf, I think because it was intimidating being so closely surrounded by audience! But I was into the music, and I think it went well.

Then I realized I still had to do it all over again for the second service!

But that went well too. People afterward said that it was in fact an amazing effect -- they didn't know where I was. The music just filled the space. One person (a former student of mine) said she cried.

What a sacred opportunity, to be asked to offer music at such an event!

I am really glad that I had so many performance opportunities last semester! That was good for me in so many ways.

Teaching

My courses last semester were meaningful and good. This semester, my schedule is very full. I'm back to a full course load, with essentially three new preps, which means these are new courses. (In one case, it's actually a course I have taught before, but a long time ago, and I've completely revised it.) Oddly enough, all of my courses overfilled. In fact, I had to get new rooms for all three. And students are still asking to be let in! So, not only do I have three new preps, but my grading load is going to be large.

House

I still really love my house. There's a bit of a problem with part of the roof, so I have to pull the snow off that section of roof every time it snows, but I've mastered the technique and find myself enjoying adding this to my list of winter chores, along with shoveling the driveway and feeding the birds.

State of Being

Music has been good for me; my new house has been good for me; my teaching has been going well. And, yet, my state of being hasn't been great. I'm still struggling, at some deep level that I do not fully understand. A few years back, life was overwhelming me, which led to genuine burnout. Then I worked hard to simplify as much as I could, to allow for healing, and I felt some success in all of this. Life feels more manageable. I feel more confident in many ways, having come through all of that. Yet, I remain a little torn between competing interests, and a little frustrated at still not having as much time as I would like to have to write. Yet these frustrations do not in themselves seem significant enough to account for the current state of my soul.

So, I'm trying to figure that out.