Thursday, November 12, 2015

Can You Make a Difference, Part 2

When I was teaching in a jail school, people were always asking, "Can you make a difference?"  Most teachers know change does happen, and it happens often enough right in the classroom to keep us flinging our hearts up on the blackboard.  In fact, we live for those moments when we see a light flicker on in a dark place.

Teachers are also full of dark places. Interactions with our students change us irrevocably ‑‑ and change is painful.

Pete had taken my communication course at night school.  He was hoping to get into college full‑time.  He had been a young offender in his teens, and now wanted to be a youth worker.  After the course was over, we continued to talk, usually about his romantic and cash flow problems.

To help his cash flow, I asked Pete to come over to reshingle my leaking roof.  He brought a recent acquaintance.

At one point, I let the acquaintance into the house to "make a phone call."  It turned out he was actually looking for theft‑worthy goods.

A few months later, I had a break‑in.  The thief found spare car keys and used my car to take my computer and other items for his clients.

Image result for early ibm clone
My IBM clone
He smashed up my car in a four‑car collision and was seen fleeing the accident, carrying my guitar.  I was devastated, especially for the loss of poetry, stories, and teaching materials that were saved on my computer ‑‑ and nowhere else.

The police asked me to think of everyone who had been in my house in the past six months.  Witnesses at the accident said the driver was in his 20s, blond, and bearded.

I called Pete and, before I said anything, he sighed, "Oh no, not you, too."  It turns out his "friend" had broken into Pete's house and the homes of everyone he had met during the weeks the two of them were socializing.

Pete gave me his friend's name.  At the police station, I discovered the friend had a record and I identified his picture.

Pete came over to talk.  He felt responsible.  He was profoundly apologetic and crying and wished he'd never brought the guy over.  He also let it slip that he knew the receiver of the stolen goods - the fence - but would not name him.  Pete had served his time and been rehabilitated, but he still knew everyone in his criminal community.

Pete also told me that he might know where my computer was.

Apparently, an escort service had put out an "order" for a computer.  Which escort service?  He would not tell me that ‑‑ but he imagined the new "owners" had got rid of the computer by now since they heard the police were looking for their  supplier. 

He knew the fence and probably the recipient as well.

I believe he was sorry.  He pleaded with me to understand.  But he was afraid, so he chose to protect his criminal acquaintances rather than help out someone who had helped him.

I felt disgusted. Our friendship was over.

Eight months pass.  The phone rings late one night.  It's Pete calling from a village on the west coast.

He just wanted to say hi.  He'd moved on.  He was working for some cousin, reading a lot, and living alone.

Two years pass.  I get another call ‑‑ this time from Kingston.  Pete, again "just checking in," saying he's working and staying out of trouble.

I said, "I'm glad to hear it."  What else could I say?

But now, I realize that he was apologizing the only way he knew how:  By getting a job ‑‑ and staying out of trouble.

Sometimes a change in our students comes only from our profound disappointment in them. 

As for me, I gradually learned to be less naive, more cautious ‑‑ less trusting.

This story was originally published in 1999 in The Hamilton Spectator when I was on their  community editorial board.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

King Lear, Part 3: Our Present Business is General Woe

I sat on the edge of my seat, leaning towards the stage, eyes wet, and watched the final scene of King Lear.  Here are some thoughts arising from the lines in Act V, Scene iii:


Edmond is a villain - and we need villains to advance the plot, but Edmond is an interesting and almost sympathetic villain.

At the beginning of King Lear, Edmond's father, Gloucester, admits that Edmond is his out-of-wedlock son that he has always "blushed" to acknowledge.  Gloucester blames the boy's mother for having a son "ere she had a husband for her bed."  Like Lear, Gloucester is another character who takes no responsibility for his actions and pays the price.

After Lear splits the country between Goneril and Regan, the state is weakened and the sisters compete with each other for Edmond. When there is division in a state or a relationship, a malefactor, like Edmond, can wedge himself in creating a wider division.  I am reminded of modern-day Syria which, due to the civil war, became a breeding ground for ISIS.

Edmond has sent orders to have Lear and Cordelia killed while in prison.  When he is captured, he tries to undo his order - his only redemptive act: 
Some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send
(Be brief in't) to the castle; for my writ
Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia.
Nay, send in time.

Edmond is very full of his own importance and influence, but when his death is announced, the response is "That's but a trifle here."  Nobody cares.

General Woe:  

The soldiers running to rescue Lear and Cordelia are too late.

Lear enters carrying Cordelia.
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stone.
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives.
She's dead as earth.

Soon Lear dies as well.  The Duke of Albany is still standing.  By Act IV, he could see that Goneril, his wife, was a piece of work.  She calls him "a milk-liver'd man" and he calls her "a fiend" shielded by a woman's shape, and a lot worse.  The play ends with his instructions:
Our present business is general woe.

These are sad times and must be so recognized.  Our very business is grieving.  Let's do nothing else.  There is a formalness and authority in this declaration that I find helpful and comforting.
The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

We are told to speak what we feel.  Our feelings are so often mediated, censored, or blocked by our roles and beliefs in what "we ought to say."  The direct line from our heart to our voice is interrupted by beliefs in how we should present ourselves.  To speak what we feel would be too raw, too vulnerable.  Yet here, Albany calls all present to only speak their feelings.


I began these meditations on King Lear by asking, "What's love got to do with it?" There's not a lot of love in King Lear.  There is a great deal of anger, shouting, cursing, and howling.  

One person who did not shout was Cordelia whose voice was ever "soft, gentle and low."  That is not only "an excellent thing in woman," it is a thing possible for anyone who is self-reflective, honest both to self and others, and responsible for their contribution, great or slight, to their own fate.

King Lear Part 2

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

King Lear, Part 2: Does Anyone Here Know Me?

Don Quixote
Last summer, in a binge of live theatre, I saw Man of La Mancha and then King Lear immediately after.  I began a piece called "King Lear of La Mancha" noting the similarities between the two works. 

King Lear

Man of La Mancha is based on a novel by Cervantes, first published in 1605.  The first performance of King Lear was in 1606.  Both stories deal with family issues and difficulties seeing women (life, the universe, everything) clearly.  Lear saw his lying, selfish daughters as loving and devoted.  He saw his honest, true daughter as uncaring. Don Quixote saw the bitter, angry Aldonza as the saintly Dulcinea.

One doesn't have to be a foolish, old man to have a distorted view.  We all do it.  We tend to see what we choose to see and interpret behaviours in ways that fit our needs and self-perception.  Art experiences can sometimes help us see more clearly.

The Lear that I saw recently struggles with his identity and his threatened sense of self. After he rashly banishes Cordelia, even the evil sister Regan notes, "He has ever but slenderly known himself."

Upon giving his two dissembling daughters each half his kingdom, he still sees himself as a functioning unit.  He will lead 100 knights and, together, they will reside with his daughters:  one month with Regan, one month with Goneril.

The daughters see him as worthless.  Rather than recognize that he made a mistake, he rages at his daughters.  The more he denies his error, the more he loses his identity.  He asks, "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" (I, iv).  The Fool replies, "Lear's shadow."  His fall into madness continues until he begins to take responsibility for his own contribution to his problems.

That might be the take-home message of the play.

At the end of Act IV, Cordelia, her soldiers, and her doctor rescue Lear.  He wakes up and gradually recognizes Cordelia -- and recalls the wrong he did her:
Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.

And with these words and the recognition that he has wronged Cordelia, he knows who he is. Lear and Cordelia are then taken prisoner by Goneril and Regan's men:
                Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon ’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies.

Lear says that they will take on "the mystery of things."  Instead of arrogance and pomposity, Lear is vulnerable and humble.  He asks forgiveness.  He's aware that he knows nothing.
And we’ll wear out
In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon. 

- by being weak and open, they will wear out the great ones.  Greatness, he says, ebbs and flows.  He now knows this well.

He is no longer struggling with his identity.  Clinging to an identity of greatness only made him crazy.

Note:  Please read the King Lear Part 1 and King Lear Part 3

There will be one further blog on the ending of King Lear.  Coming soon.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Whither Shakespeare? Part XI: King Lear or What's Love Got to Do with It?

King Lear is about a self-absorbed senior citizen who wants to retire.  He wants others, particularly his daughters, to love him as much as he loves himself.  He is willing to pay an army of men to carouse with him and this props up his belief in his own importance.  He no longer wants the responsibility of running a kingdom.

Perhaps he devoted his whole life to his kingdom.  Perhaps he was a good king, as he has some loyal followers, Kent for one.  But King Lear is somewhat addled and mistaking his older daughters' fawning praise for love, he divides the kingdom between them.
His youngest daughter, Cordelia, really does love him, but will not buy into the division of the kingdom based on the one-off expression of love that he demands.  She is banished, but has a husband who will love her for herself, not for her share of the kingdom.

In the opening scenes of King Lear, the noise of love is mistaken for the deeds and behaviours over time that prove love to be real.

Lear, who is not aware of his failings and believes 100% in his impulses, banishes Kent and Cordelia and the play is off and running.

I am about to see a live performance of King Lear in a park in Vancouver.  I will report back soon with an update - looking particularly at how love, both false and real, recognized and unrecognized, lead to the tragic outcomes of this play.

King Lear, Part 2 here.      King Lear, Part 3 here.                                                           

Thursday, July 23, 2015

What Do You Need in a Relationship? Besides "Love."

Here's my top five things:

     Do I feel heard and understood?

2.  FUN:
     Do I have fun with you?

3.  TRUST:
     Are you a safe harbour where I can moor my boat?
     Is it safe to come home?
     Will I be nurtured and cared for?

     Is my body accepted and loved by you?
     Is a hug or cuddle available or withheld?
     Are my physical needs validated or mocked?

     Do you respect my concerns or devalue them?

These components are provided in varying degrees at various times.  We might prefer 100% of these all the time, but we find we can be happy with some other percent.  Some days, we are only able to give 70% ourselves.

What are your desired components?

What do you give?

Ask your partner.  It might be a scary conversation, but it seems like a genuine one and might keep you from being blindsided by some imagined dissatisfaction down the road.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Is the Universe Indifferent, Part 2

Early yesterday morning, I was driving down a ramp running past this church heading towards the highway.  A deer came bounding across the highway ahead of me.  I was still going slow and able to stop (and luckily the guy behind me stopped too). I know this happens all the time in New Jersey, but it had never happened to me here.

If in my delusional subjectivity , I believed the universe was sending me a message, it would be this:  You can live in two worlds: the forest and the city, and occasionally the creative natural part of you can leap up and STOP TRAFFIC, if you have to.

Or maybe the message from the universe is simply, "Lil, like this friggin' deer, you are LOST.  Figure out where home is and where you can be safe and go there."

Jewish philosopher, Richard Rubenstein wrote:  "We stand in a cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos unaided by any purposeful power beyond our own resources."  I'm inclined to agree, but the universe gives us so much, so much.  

It's fun to imagine it is a sentient, engaged universe sending me mysteries to unravel. What messages do you get from the universe?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

What Does It Mean to Face Your Problems?

Wouldn't it be easier to avoid facing one's problems?  Even suffering is easier than facing one's problems -- for a while.  Eventually we put on our big girl or big boy pants and deal with things.  Here's a poem I wrote on the topic in 2005 about things that had happened years earlier.  Here it is years later and there are still many things that need facing - probably always will be.


 "Maybe you never get over anything. You just find a way of carrying it as gently as possible."  -- Bronwen Wallace
Facing it is deciding not to wipe blood off the floor
Well, not so much deciding, as letting it sit there, declaring itself.

          Facing it is sitting alone, 
          watching your 8-year-old play baseball
          in a park on a sunny day
          And when she makes her way around the bases, you think
                   If this is as good as it gets –
                   This is pretty good.

          Facing it is saying to a new lover,
          “What makes your life meaningful?”
          And if he says, “My gun collection,”
          disarming him with a smile
          and cancelling the next date.

          Facing it is seeing it in others
          – an isolated student or neighbour
          entombed in anger
          on the verge of explosion.
          So you listen, just listen – 
           a candle in a cave.

          Then facing it is writing it
          telling it
          to yourself, to another
          to the world.

          Facing it is accepting it
          with compassion and grace
          letting your heart grow wider

          and eventually
          scrubbing the blood off the floor
          packing up and moving on
                   and carrying it with you,
                     . . . gently

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Did You Hear What I Didn't Say?

I teach active, empathic listening to grad students.  Many of them are highly skilled, multi-talented computer scientists from universities around the globe.
Image result for stressed coworker
Team member's stress
When we listen accurately, everyone benefits.  We can better understand
  • our client's needs
  • our supervisor's instructions
  • our team member's stress.
Showing awareness of unspoken feelings can hasten connection and problem-solving in difficult situations.

Empathic listening might involve guessing at a person's underlying feelings and tentatively reflecting those feelings back.  Since our emotional vocabulary might be limited to Seseme Street feelings, I provide students with lists of emotions and ask them to identify the feelings they have had in the last day, week, or month.

After the students learn and roleplay responding with empathy, I  pull troubling statements out of a bag and go around the circle, asking each student to respond to a different statement.  These are all real statements that people have said to me.

  1. Young adult:  “I hate it when my parents’ friends ask me what I’m going to do with my life.  I don’t know what I want to do yet and they really want me to know.”
  2. Friend:  “I spilled coffee on my keyboard.  Fried everything."
  3. Friend:  “My mom’s in the psycho ward.  She tried to overdose."
  4. Friend:  "My husband's so depressed, he hung a noose from a rafter in the hall.  Every day when I come home, I climb up on a ladder and cut it down.  The next day, it's up again."
The exercise is hard, but particularly hard for some of my foreign students.  Maybe they can't imagine that there is an underlying, unspoken feeling, and probably, the exercise makes no sense to them.

After my last workshop.  I asked one of my students how he felt about the class.
"It was interesting," he said.
"If one of your friends back home told you about a personal problem, what's the first thing you would say?" I asked.
"I'd say, 'thank you,' to my friend."
"Thank you?"
"It's so unusual," he said, "for someone to tell me a problem that I'd say thank you to them - thank you for trusting me with the problem."
 Thank you, my student for giving me that information. It will help me teach this unit. 

Possible Answers
Seriously, there's no "right" answer.  Just try to imagine what the other person is going through and reflect it back.  Read their body language if you can.  This response is just a first step in a longer conversation.  Also, be mindful of really really bad stuff and let your response reflect that awareness.
1.  "That must be embarrassing for you - to not be able to give them an answer."
2.  "Oh crap!! That's awful.  You must feel so mad at yourself."
3.  "You must be so shocked and worried."
4.  "Maybe he's trying to tell you something."   -- no just kidding, that would be a terrible response -- How about, "You must be afraid to go home."  or  "It sounds like you are feeling completely helpless."

(I want to cry thinking of these examples.  Please, shoot me an empathic response.)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Did You Hear What I Said? Part Two

I once taught a workshop at a national research institute for fuel cell innovation. The health and safety inspectors had put the institute on notice for bad and dangerous communication. They had to work towards correcting the problem. The institute employed scientists from around the world.  I taught workshops on listening.  They explained the problem and invited me to the site.
My workshop was called: Chicken Soup for the Inner Ear: Effective Listening in a Diverse Community.

It appeared that due to language and cultural differences, safety rules were not being heard and understood. While everyone spoke English, there was a good chance that they were also translating in their heads and something might be lost in the translation.  There were also cultural differences. 
"Imagine an expert is explaining a safety procedure," I said, "and you are not 100% sure that you understand.  It would be a good idea to say, 
  • Please explain that again or 
  • What do you mean by . . .? or 
  • Can I repeat back my understanding of this?"
One person said, "I could not do that. It is considered rude in my culture."

We did some roleplaying and discovered a workaround, so that politeness would not lead to them being BLOWN UP by volatile chemicals.

There were about 25 scientists and engineers in the workshop. I was wondering how well they listened to one another, so we did this exercise:

I asked them to explain their job to the person next to them. The next person would have to repeat back in their own words what the first person's job was.

As we began this exercise, it quickly became obvious that rather than hearing what the person was saying, the listener interpreted it or translated it and said it back  inaccurately.  As we did this, the class became more engaged and invested.  They gradually realized that if there were so many misunderstandings and misinterpretations in this simple exercise, things might be going very badly in more complicated, technical conversations.

The company is still standing.  The only thing that has exploded so far is the myths they carried of being good communicators.