Diane Anderson - Last Collection
Thank you. When you asked me to speak I was honored. And then I worked very hard to come up with a speech for you: I worked hard to think about my audience, I reached out to each of you directly for some clarity (most of you ignored me… you were busy…), and I procrastinated.
A friend died, so I thought about her and how much I would miss her and that I missed my chance to learn from her - to learn to dye cloth with indigo. From her. With her. I thought about her instead of writing my speech.
I babysat. Toddler twin grandchildren are great for procrastinating! I asked the toddlers what I should advise you. They said: OPEN, UP, HELP, PLEASE, SORRY, and THANK YOU. I thought; “that pretty much sums it up.” I thought some more thoughts, and piled up some quotes and ideas. I ruminated. Then I thought about ruminating and what a wonderful word that is.
I more frequently awoke in a panic as this day approached. I got anxious. I thought about a possible illness that might excuse my lack of preparation; a concussion? the flu? I asked for an extension…
I was told that Collection is a firm deadline.
But then, finally, I got to writing this speech. And when I finally got to the task I realized that when I think about life lessons I think about three things.
First, I think about how to live joyfully and optimistically when life is so unpredictable and challenging most of the time. And life is challenging. Life is filled with failure, death, being dumped by your significant other, people poisoning your dog accidently, brain injuries, addictions, that dumb cancer thing, and people who disagree. On a daily basis those people who disagree can really ruin your day.
I also think about literacies. Yes, I think about literacies. I think that to be human is to think and speak and read and listen and write. I really do think that everything is a “scene of literacy.” I think about how, according to Adrienne Rich, “You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.” I think about how true it is that your life depends on literacies and the identities that accrue based on how persons… and then other persons categorize others based on literacies and identities. I think about what Lave and Wenger said: “Identity, knowing, and social membership entail one another…learning and identity are inseparable; they are aspects of the same phenomenon.” I think about how privileged those of us who are attached to a Swarthmore education are, and how others, who speak, read, and write well, who perhaps listen better, do not have access to that identity.
The third thing that I think about is children’s books. My own childhood was in a working class community and in one span of months when I was seven, bedridden with a mystery illness; books were my gateway to other worlds. I read Grimm’s Tales, the Boxcar Children, and a biography of Jane Addams, perhaps setting me upon life as an educator wanting to eradicate the poverty and deprivation in which many children and families find themselves. I think about children’s books and in the genre of children’s books. I think about children’s books for children, by children, and the ones I write in my head as I walk or swim.
One of the wisest children’s books I know was written by a seven year old. Called The Eight Stories, it began with an “Introduction” that seems both prescient and hopeful about life, including your life, post-college. This child writes:
“This book contains mysteries, sports stories, and one fantasy story. Each story will be short and no one will act stupid in the stories. Each person will have a time of losing. No one will be called the worst or the best, and no one will make fun of anyone else. There will be tons of teamwork. Everyone will help each other. The stories will start with happiness, but will not always end happy. Are there any questions? Let us begin. Ready? Here we go!”
So, where do we go? How can we not “act stupid” or “make fun of anyone else?” What can we do to have “tons of teamwork,” help each other, and find happiness?
It has come to my attention that you missed out on the Queries that have begun every First Collection after you, in the Quaker tradition. I want to make this omission up to you by providing three queries for moving on. Not answers to the queries, mind you. I want to give you a few ideas, a few things to ponder, and even some suggestions, but no answers, because your life will be the answer.
Query 1: How can I be critical and loving?
At Swarthmore, you have been deeply steeped in critique, in doubt, and in skepticism. You know how to break a text, or speech, or your friend’s thoughtless comment into microscopic bits unfit for human consumption. Or into identities that have gotten very close to so small as to include no one but you. This can make for isolation, cynicism, and loneliness. I know, from conversations with so many of you over the last few years, that loneliness is one of your fears and cynicism makes you sad. We taught this to you and you have practiced willingly.
However, some of the very theorists who have set us on course to be critical also tell us about love. We do not talk of love or relationships very often, do we? Now seems as good a time as any!
One example of such a theorist is Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian educator who authored a liberatory critical pedagogy of the people in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He tells us that we commit violence when we “fail to recognize others as persons” and that we must enter into a dialogue with others “mediated by the world in order to name the world.” He says that “dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world” and “dialogue cannot exist without humility.”
This love of the word and the world began early for Freire and his work was always steeped in love. In his conversations with Myles Horton late in their lives he shares:
“I discovered that reading has to be a loving event. I still remember … being alone in the small house where we used to live – reading, making notes, observations, at two o’clock in the morning. Sometimes my mother used to come in to say to me, “It is too much. You have to sleep.” But I had such an almost physical connection with the text. It was this experience that began to teach me how reading is also an act of beauty because it has to do with the reader rewriting the text. It is an aesthetical event… I will always remember that it was a great feeling of happiness.”
If Freire can begin his life in reading and rewriting words and the world, critical yet loving, how can we become critical and loving in our professional and personal loves?
Peter Elbow has some ideas about this. He recommends a practice of believing as well as doubting, a practice of liking as well as evaluating. He says:
“…the believing game is the disciplined practice of trying to be as welcoming or accepting as possible to every idea we encounter: not just listening to views different from our own and holding back from arguing with them; not just trying to restate them without bias; but actually trying to believe them. We are using believing as a tool to scrutinize and test. But instead of scrutinizing fashionable or widely accepted ideas for hidden flaws, the believing game asks us to scrutinize unfashionable or even repellent ideas for hidden virtues. Often we cannot see what's good in someone else's idea (or in our own!) till we work at believing it. When an idea goes against current assumptions and beliefs--or if it seems alien, dangerous, or poorly formulated---we often cannot see any merit in it.”
Now that is a tall order. He is asking us to believe “even repellent ideas for hidden virtues?” He is asking for EXTREME EMPATHY. No way, you say!? But I would suggest that we do this every day. We do it without thought when we read fiction or watch a film that coerces us artfully into seeing the world through the eyes of a flawed character. (And aren’t they all flawed characters today?)
Just look at this past year! My two favorites were Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea. Every character was good and well meaning, but vulnerable and hurting and so, so mean and spiteful. People got beaten and children died. But these characters were also beautiful. I was gob-smacked and I loved all of these characters. They were very much like people I have known and hated and loved.
And they reminded me of my own sorry self. How, if you wrote the story of my life, there would have to be that scene where, at the age of 5, I punched a girl in the face and split her eyelid open because I did not know how to tell her that I didn’t want her to walk me to school.
How, at 12, the day after my mother’s Bridge (and cocktail) party, I stood in line to go into Social Studies class and, this time using my words, I said, to my teacher, in front of everyone, “Looks like you really tied one on last night, Mrs. H.” My face burns in shame at the nastiness, the thoughtlessness. I have not always been as kind, or sorry, or forgiving as I aspire to be… or as I hope you all will be.
And so, Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea reminded me that we already do Elbow’s kind of believing, or at least we do it fictionally. What would happen if we allowed ourselves to have that kind of empathy in real life? Could I love my Uncle Bill, whose political views opposed mine and who provoked me into the liberal that I am today? I don’t actually have to have dinner with him, although I could, if he was still alive. Could we still work for social justice but do it without the hatred and demonizing of the “other?” And how can we live our daily lives as believers and lovers, or at least as people who care about real people as much as we care about fictional people?
Which brings me to Wednesday.
Query 2: What do I imagine Wednesday will look like?
This must seem an odd question. Wednesday is not a special day. Not the anticipatory Friday, not the back to work Monday, not the fun weekend. Caught in the middle, it is plain, bland, and un-special. It is known in the middle school classroom as hump-day, that hump of a day that you have to work to get over in each week. But, in many ways, we live most of our lives on Wednesday, caught between those weekends, between our successes and losses, between births and deaths, between the stupid things we did yesterday and the amazing problem solving we will do tomorrow.
A recent beautifully illustrated children’s book reminded me of where we have been, you and so many of us who live in academia. In A Child of Books, Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston write: “I am a child of books. I come from a world of stories and upon my imagination I float. I have sailed across a sea of words to ask if you will come away with me.”
You, too, have sailed upon a sea of words. You have often felt you were drowning in that sea of textbooks, novels, essays, lab reports, emails, theses, Facebook posts, Twitter, political speeches, Public Safety warnings, and a dean’s virtual hand, extended, saying: I am concerned. Perhaps you have been in fear that you might one day be the subject of one of my Terrifying Stories. For you it is time to sail further. I hope you don’t get seasick!
And where to sail? About our futures, Jeffers and Winston tell us: “This is our world we’ve made from stories…our house is a home of invention where anyone at all can come, for imagination is free.”
I am here to tell you to take the reins of your imagination and make your home and the world what you wish it to be, as much as you possibly can. If you don’t have an imagination, go get one. Make one. Buy a notebook without lines and pretend you are creative. Imagine, first, your good and sturdy self. Second, imagine what you want to see outside your window. Third, imagine who you will break bread with for that sacred hump day meal.
You might flip a few of the standards by which you have measured yourselves and your experiences. For example, what if your next decision was based on where you would like to live instead of your next career step? What if it was based on a friend, or an area filled with great microbreweries, or a place of worship, or the need to be near water, or people who look like you or… people who don’t look like you? What if it was based on a museum you always wanted to live near so you could say, “I live near the Owlshead Transportation Museum and I can go anytime I want! Anytime I want!” (By the way, there is such a museum!)
Where you live and who lives with you and what is near you will shape you, just as it did Paulo Freire. Just as it did for Barbara Cooney, author of Miss Rumphius, who saw lupine flowers everywhere and imagined a character who would travel the world, return home, plant seeds, and make a more beautiful place.
I can tell you from my heart that knowing water, boats, the New Jersey Pine Barrens; knowing people who struggle with mental illness, addictions, head injuries, and chronic pain; seeing death and the dying up close; taking photos of great sunsets (which, by the way, there are not enough of on Instagram!); chronicling colors and textures everywhere; marveling, yes marveling, at leaf-stained sidewalks and the fact that there are bridges; tasting raspberries and blueberries and dark chocolate; I can tell you that all of it will shape you. Perhaps you should start by letting your imagination run wild.
Which brings me back to what you see out your window. How will you interpret and rewrite your Wednesdays?
Query 3: How will I maintain perspective in a complex world?
A simple start for us is to acknowledge our humanity and that, despite it, we are still just animals. Children’s books are filled with animals. They are stand-ins for us. The simple truth is that we are human animals, shaped by our biology and our cultures, in need of food, sleep, shelter, and one another.
In the children’s book They All Saw the Cat by Brendan Wenzel, the child, the dog, the fox, the fish, the mouse, the bee, the bird, the flea, the snake, the skunk, the worm, and the bat all see the cat differently because they have different eyes and different perspectives. Their perspectives are based on their eyes, where they stand, their relationships, and power. Sound familiar?
Gorillas show up to stand in for us in Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park. Two children and two adults interact in the park, amid a carnival of cleverly altered art-referencing landscapes. Each gorilla comes from the same experience, with widely and wildly divergent perspectives on the event that just happened. From their age, class, race, gender, and grumpy or not grumpy perspectives, they see differently. This is a Rashomon experience for young children. And we are the lucky ones because we are positioned even further from the story, able to see it all.
Stepping further back suggests another kind of perspective, attained only by travel. Please travel, through stories on a sea of words and by rail or trail or plane. Witness how other cultures see themselves, how other cultures see you; learn how important or unimportant everyone else thinks their life is; how special their children are, or annoying; how scared or hopeful they are. Be small and anonymous. And then, travel with your mind in quite another way.
You are the intelligentsia, the elite educated class, every one of you, no matter where you have come from. The diploma, the piece of paper you will receive on Sunday, will attest to this. I challenge you, today, to think differently about yourselves and others by thinking with a different part of your brain. I challenge you to choose something to learn that you are not likely, ever, to master. Do knitting, cooking, dancing, gardening, laundry, painting, music, furniture re-finishing, yoga, appliance or bicycle repair, anything that allows you to see with your hands or body. (However, save the plumbing and electrical work for the experts!) Experience The Mind at Work, as Mike Rose calls it, in his book about working class jobs.
Embodied work will shape you, just as it did for philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford, who wrote Shopclass as Soulcraft. Crawford urges us to discover tools and materials, to explore usefulness, to, as he says, “recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale and extricate (ourselves) from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy.” Embodied work, whether for money or pleasure, entails the mind and your identity, in the context of both your local lived experience and the world of others.
Useful work, manual work, for art or pleasure or to repair the world, could give you perspective. You can learn to respect work itself, no matter what work it is or who does it. You can learn the value of your work, not just of competition and performance. You might change the world; we have taught you to know that you can. But even if you just work hard at loving, imagining, and maintaining perspective, daily, in even your most minor of interactions and tasks, you will make the world a better place.
Many of you have told me you just want to know that life after Swarthmore will be better, happier, and less stressful. You said you desired to hear any wisdom I have collected through the years. So I have presented you with queries. I have suggested that we all consider how we might be critical and loving; skeptical and believing; sharp and kind. I have encouraged each of you to make your most mundane days the best days by continuing to explore your imagination and the world, to continue to learn. I have implored you to acknowledge your humanity, to travel to explore different perspectives, and to make yourself useful. All of which is to tell you that every single day and moment of your lives will shape you and the people around you. You will collect your own wisdoms, and organize them, and revise them, and scrap them, and collect some more. All humans do.
Here is my prediction, and hope, for your future, in my re-write of the words of the child I quoted earlier:
Your life will contain mysteries, maybe sports stories, and at least one fantasy story. Each story will be short, except the ones that are long, and I hope no one will act stupid in the stories. But when someone does act stupid, because sometimes we do, I hope that they will take responsibility for their stupidity and work hard to take responsibility and make amends. Each of you will have a time of losing, but you will learn from losing. My hope is that no one will be called the worst or the best, and no one will make fun of anyone else, because we all have goodness within us. There will be tons of teamwork. Everyone will help each other. The stories will start with happiness, or not, and will not always end happy. But then the next story will begin, with the never-ending possibility of goodness and happiness.
Are there any questions? Let us begin. Ready? Here we go!
Anderson, H. (1992). The Eight Stories: Introduction. Swarthmore, PA: Swarthmore-Rutledge School Classroom Press.
Browne, A. (2001) Voices in the Park. New York: DK Publishing.
Cooney, B. (1985). Miss Rumphius. New York: Puffin Press.
Crawford, M. (2009). Shopcraft as Soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work. New York: Penguin Books. (p. 8)
Damon, M., Steward, K., Moore, C., Walsh, K. (Producers). Lonergan, K. (Director). (2016). Manchester by the Sea. US: K Period Media.
Elbow, P. (2008). The Believing Game: Methodological believing. Amherst, MA.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (translated by Myra Bergman Ramos) New York: Continuum. (pp. 41, 76-78)
Horton, M. & Freire, P., edited by B. Bell, J Gaventa, & J. Peters. (1990). We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on education and social change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. (p. 26 & 27)
Jeffers, O., & Winston, S. (2016) A Child of Books. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press. (pp. 53 & 115).
Rich, A. (1993). As if your life depended on it in What is Found There: Notebooks on poetry and politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Romanski, A. Gardner, D., Kleiner, J. (Producers). Jenkins, B. (Director). (2016). Moonlight. US: A24.
Rose, M. (2004). The mind at Work: Valuing the intelligence of the American worker. New York: Viking Press.
Wenzel, B. (2016). They all saw the cat. New York: Chronicle Books.