It’s all about finding the center.
I had been on the faculty for around fifteen years, and I had found my comfort level in the classroom. My philosophy had gradually evolved from the rigid authoritarianism of my youth to a more open and accepting stance. I was helped along by some wise community college students who made me see who they were, not who I wanted them to be. Probably the one who pointed me most was an inmate at the state penitentiary—a lifer—who moved me away from promoting education as a way to construct a job, a career, an expected pattern to understanding that the purpose of education is to more fully live and understand the lives we find ourselves in.
It was about this time that I attended a Roger Garrison Master Teachers’ Seminar in Portland, Maine. Garrison had it right. He believed that the voices of authority at the seminar should not be hired consultants who talked the talk, but instead the authoritative voices should be the faculty who have been doing the work. After all, we knew the questions, and we had struggled with answers. Garrison believed that if we had time to work together on our own questions with our own answers, we could find better solutions. What the seminar gave me, in the final analysis, was the personal authority to teach my students, not to teach a field. I came away grounded in my own center.
What happened the first night of the seminar speaks closely to my most recent work. The first event was a social, and we all introduced ourselves by telling a snippet about who/what/why that gave a sense of who we were. A man from the Washington, DC area introduced himself and identified his community college. I don’t remember if it was Prince George’s, Montgomery, or Northern Virginia, but it was one of the recognizable ones from the DC area. He said he liked living close to DC because that is where it’s at. The center of everything. All the political power in the world is right there.
However, I knew that across the Missouri River from Bismarck is a reconstruction of a Mandan Indian Village on its original site. In addition to reconstructed earth lodges, in the center of the village is a wood palisade about 6-8 feet in diameter. Inside that palisade is a hole in the ground, and that is the Arc of the First Man; the hole through which humans emerged unto the earth. There is the center of the universe—the center of everything.
It is the balance between a natural center and our constructed centers that we must achieve. In many ways that is the heart and soul of writing, and what gives such power to the fictive voice. We must find a way to construct a narrative that reveals the unconstructed whole.
Three years ago I traveled east in my little Jeep, and when I came through the eastern divide in the West Virginia, western Maryland and western Virginia mountainscape, I listened to Judy Collins “Amazing Grace.” I began the long slide down the Chesapeake watershed to Washington, the place where it’s at, and when I hit the beltway, I shoved the Chicago Brass into the tape player and cranked the volume. I needed all the brass I could muster to survive.
These kids from the high plains of the western Dakotas survived nicely. Accustomed to the long landscape and the long wind that sweeps down from the western divide and across the great plains, we adjusted to the haze-shortened vision and crowded landscape where large buildings hold the imagination of the world. We reveled in the constructed reality within the art museums, the Kennedy center performances, the words and ideas of our political heritage, the artifacts of the natural science museum and the constructed birds in the air and space museum. Here, everything is one step or more from reality. Artifacts in museums and constructed ideologies reflect and represent the actuality that is the real workaday world.
I have cleaned out my office, the accumulated detritus easily disposed of. I have packed my apartment and it waits for the van. On Monday I will do the ceremonial turning in of my keys, cell phone, credit cards, and other paraphernalia necessary for this work. Then I will toss my bedroll (okay, that’s a metaphor) in the back of my little Jeep, shove Peter, Paul, and Mary singing "This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land" into the tape deck, and climb out of the lowlands and over the eastern divide to head out for the original Northwest Territories. When I come out of the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul heading north on Interstate 35, the traffic will be traveling at 75-90 miles an hour—not unlike the beltway down here. Then, at Forest Lake, I will turn off the interstate onto a two-lane blacktop country road that winds over hills, around lakes, and has no passing areas. The speed limit is 55, and I will fall in line with traffic that moves no faster than that. So, I will meander along the curves and hills, watch the blue sky over the blue lakes, roll the window down and smell the fresh fields and hear the birds. And I will be home.
Friday, June 27, 2008
It’s all about finding the center.