I’ve been passing judgment on others’ writing.  It’s known by another name, grading.  It’s how I’ve spent my weekend, reading and commenting on the students’ submissions for my current course for UCLA extension Writers’ Program.  I won’t lie.  It’s complicated.  On the one hand, I have to model the balanced feedback I require from them, a blend of positive and constructive, all with the intent that feedback—which is always received emotionally—will be instructional, helpful in their quest to improve upon and develop their creative writing craft.  On the other, I’m sometimes impatient, reading a submission that doesn’t come close to my expectations for students at their level.  That’s when the agony begins.  I have to curb my impatience, silence the ever-present critic which threatens to fill someone’s submission with red marks, and call up the more benevolent, but instructional self.

I remember how I felt (and still feel) when I received critique.  I’m back in grade four, Mrs. Herfindahl’s class, and I’ve written my version of the biblical Christmas story in my most careful penmanship, careful to use quotation marks when someone speaks, to indent my paragraphs, to stay true to the story I’d been told in Sunday school countless times.  Perhaps I plagiarized a bit, opening up my brand new King James Version and copying a few phrases here and there, but surely, I thought, I had handed in a story worthy of an “A.”

In first grade Mrs. Lohr

said my purple teepee

wasn’t realistic enough,

that purple was no color

for a tent,

that purple was a color

for people who died,

that my drawing wasn’t 

good enough

to hang with the others.


I walked back to my seat

counting the swish swish swishes

of my baggy corduroy trousers.

With a black crayon

nightfall came

to my purple tent

in the middle

of an afternoon.

(From:  “Purple,” by Alexis Rotella, in Step Lightly:  Poems for the Journey, by Nancy Willard, Ed., 1998.)

My paper wasn’t worthy of that “A,” at least not in Mrs. Herfindahl’s opinion.  When it was returned, a “B+” glared back at me in bright red ink, and throughout my carefully penned story, a host of red marks.  I felt terrible, and to this day, I imagine my students feeling similarly when my comments are less than glowing.  Ouch!  Writing, I have since discovered many times, is an act of living with rejection many times over, and yet, I keep on writing, because it’s what I’m driven to do, what I love doing, and I learn it’s possible to improve as I begin work on another version..

As it turns out, it’s not our grade school teachers, the magazine editors or our creative writing instructors who are our fiercest critics.  Sure, we may have suffered a few harsh evaluations along the way, grown up with a demanding parent telling us repeatedly we were capable of so much more or better.  But take a look in the mirror.  Your most vociferous critic lives inside your head.  You’re looking at her.

We all judge ourselves, whether we’re trying to write, paint, perform on stage, or, more likely, parent our firstborn child or juggle the many balls in the air of our busy lives, even as we cope with cancer and the effects it has on our lives–especially when we complete treatment and recovery, returning to the altered and new “normal.”  It’s when we feel we’ve somehow disappointed others, fallen short of some unspoken level of attainment, or let ourselves down,  our self-recriminations  become especially loud—a veritable Greek chorus.  And we all have them, those noisy, old internalized voices that chide us from time to time, saying “you should do better than that, you know.”

How do we silence those critics, especially those who live in our heads?  How do we practice a little self-forgiveness and allow ourselves the freedom to be messy, woefully imperfect, or terribly human?  A little humor can help.   In a poem guaranteed to make you smile, Kaylin Haught asks God for permission to be herself—and not worry about punctuation!

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is… 

Thanks God I said

And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

(From:  The Palm of Your Hand, 1995)

In “Marks,” Linda Pastan pokes some fun at the frustration of being graded as a wife and mother by her family members:

My husband gives me an A
for last night’s supper,
an incomplete for my ironing,
a B plus in bed.
My son says I am average,
an average mother, but if
I put my mind to it
I could improve.
My daughter believes
in Pass/Fail and tells me
I pass.  Wait ’til they learn
I’m dropping out.

(From Five Stages of Grief, 1978)

What about you?  How do you grade yourself?  When does your internal critic get in the way?  What kind of permission do you want to give yourself?  This week, write about grades, grading yourself, being graded by others–and as you do, try silencing those tiresome voices with a bit of humor!

Loss.  It’s something that seems to dog you at every turn when you are dealing with cancer.  It’s a persistent shadow, sorrow that accompanies the awareness of how your life is changed, and not in ways you wished for or anticipated.  Larry Smith, poet and cancer survivor expresses the sense of loss in his poem, “What You Realize When Cancer Comes:”

You will not live forever—No,
you will not, for a ceiling of clouds
hovers in the sky.

You are not as brave
as you once thought.
Sounds of death
echo in your chest.

You feel the bite of pain,
the taste of it running
through you.

Following the telling to friends
comes a silence of
felt goodbyes. You come to know
the welling of tears…

Loss is a predominant theme in the beginning weeks of my “Writing Through Cancer”workshops.  A few years ago, I began a session with a short warm, inviting the group to write about anything on their minds for a few minutes.  When I asked who wished to read aloud, one young woman quickly volunteered.

“I’m angry about losing my hair,” she began.  “It’s been my signature, long and full…”  She looked up from her notebook.  Her eyes were red and teary.  Several women nodded sympathetically, while I recalled my own embarrassment, when, as a teenager, I sported a bald head after neurosurgery, covering it with scarves as I returned to school, feeling unattractive and vulnerable and praying no one would laugh at me.

It grew back, of course, and so did the young woman’s, becoming full and long over time.  But the feelings of loss are synonymous with cancer, and the losses involve much more than hair.

In a recent workshop, I invited the participants to write about the losses experienced because of cancer.  Besides hair, the losses included breasts and other body parts, the sense of self each once felt; even friends, along with dreams, hopes, and loved ones.  As the list of losses grew, it seemed cancer was like living in a barren landscape of overwhelming loss, hopelessness and grief.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth…

(From “Kindness”, by Naomi Shihab-Nye in The Words Under The Words ©1994)

“Feel the future dissolve in a moment…”  A diagnosis of cancer undoes us at first, like being tossed into a maelstrom of fear and loss.  The very word can temporarily rob us of hope and joy, replacing them with fear and sorrow.  Gradually, as treatment and recovery progress, something else happens.  We find things:  new strength, new self-understanding, and new awareness of the world around us.

Your children are stronger
than you thought and
closer to your skin.

The beauty of animals
birds on telephone lines,
dogs who look into your eyes,
all bring you peace…

Songs can move you now, so that
you want to hold onto the words
like the hands of children.

Your own hands look good to you.
old and familiar
as water…

(From:  A River Remains:  Poems, by Larry Smith, 2006)

After my group members read the lists of losses aloud to one another, we didn’t stop there.  I invited them to write again, this time asking,  “What have you found?”

Would it surprise you to know that the list of meaningful things discovered or found overshadowed the losses?  Their lists included new friends, faith, even strength they didn’t know they had, greater love with spouses, clarity about what truly matters in their lives, new dreams, a sense of freedom and awakening and, as one person put it, “the realization that I am not my body.” All the losses were coupled with new discoveries, new knowledge, self-insight and understanding, new facets of themselves to explore and cherish.  Cancer, as someone remarked in an earlier session, can be a great teacher.

This is not a dress rehearsal…today is the only guarantee that you get… think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.

–Anna Quindlen

We all suffer losses throughout our lives.  It’s not just those of us who’ve experienced cancer that discover the gift of each day we’re given.  Life, as Anna Quindlen suggests, is like living with a terminal illness.   We must learn to balance our losses with new discoveries, new joy, and a passion for each day we live.  As William Stafford described in the poem, “The Gift:”

It’s a balance, the taking and passing along,
the composting of where you’ve been and how people
and weather treated you.  It’s a country where
you already are, bringing where you have been.

(From: My Name is William Tell, 1992)

Create your balance sheet this week.  On one side of the page, list the losses in your life since cancer; on the other, list the gains.  Write about not only the things you’ve lost since cancer, but now, write about what you’ve gained.  Which do you want to emphasize in your life?

Each week I’m led off

to the clinic for my infusion

as if I’ll be handed a steaming,

fragrant cup of pleasure.

My wig’s a supercranial prosthesis

and I’m not a yacht but have my own port,

below my clavicle, so the poison

can go straight to my heart.

The chemo room is nothing

like the ocean

or even a river;

it’s a murky swimming hole

with snakes and gators and turtles…

(“Infusion Fridays,” by Terry Godbey.  Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 2, 2013)

In 1978 Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, now considered a classic, but at the time, described as Newsweek as “one of the most liberating books of its time.”  Sontag was a cancer patient during the time she wrote, and she not only explored how the metaphors—and myths—that surround cancer and other illnesses, can add to the suffering of patients.  But there was another side to Sontag’s narrative.  Writing in the January 26, 1978 issue of The New York Times, Sontag stated:

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.  I want to describe not what it’s really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and to live there, but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that situation; not real geography but stereotypes of national character. My subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of illness as a figure or metaphor.

Metaphors abound in our daily lives.  Some of you may recall how former White House counsel John Dean referred to “the cancer on the Presidency,” or in revised versions that followed, as a cancer within — close to the Presidency — that’s growing.”  Like it not, metaphors are powerful influences on how we think about illness or the state of the nation.  And in the “kingdom of the sick,” of cancer, metaphors exert a subtle or not so subtle influence on how we perceive and deal with our illness.

Not surprisingly, in our culture, physicians and patients alike often see cancer as a battle.  While “fight” or battle metaphors can provide meaning and purpose for many, in this country, war is the predominant metaphor used in the cancer experience.  According to Gary Reisfield and George Wilson, authors of the article “Use of Metaphor in the Discourse on Cancer,”

This metaphor [war] is ubiquitous in our society (witness, for example, the “wars on drugs, poverty, illiteracy and teen pregnancy).  It is easily adaptable to cancer…there is an enemy (the cancer), a commander (the physician), a combatant (the patient), allies (the healthcare team), and formidable weaponry (including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons)… (in The Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2004).

They authors also point out that war is not the only metaphor used in the discourse on cancer.  Another commonly used metaphor points to also the universal “life is a journey,” overlaid on those whose lives have been altered by cancer.  They suggest that “the journey” metaphor may be more applicable to 21st century cancer, as the disease has gradually transformed from an acute to a chronic illness, and for some, is enmeshed in an individual’s life narratives for years, even decades.

Yet I think it’s important to remember that the metaphors we use are deeply personal, whether in illness or used to describe other chapters of our lives.  The war metaphor may rankle some of us.  The journey metaphor might not capture what we experience ourselves.  Metaphors originate from what we know, what we have experienced in our lives.  As the poet Marge Piercy reminds us:

 Imagery comes directly out of your own core. It comes from how you perceive the world, how carefully you look and listen, how well you remember, how your mind works. What we have to draw on is largely dependent on how much attention we’ve paid to what’s within and outside of us.

This past Friday, I invited my Moores UCSD Cancer Center writers to explore the metaphors they use to describe their cancer experience.  We began by brainstorming, starting with the phrase, “Cancer is ___________________” and adding the images that came to mind.  The results were as varied and distinctive as the people in the room.  Cancer became a cockroach, a hidden bomb, a teacher, a menacing character loitering in a dark alley, an interruption, something unwanted, but hidden under layers of paint and wood rot, and for another, a flashlight in the forest of life.  From the generation of the metaphors each used to define their experience of cancer came longer narratives, the metaphor extended into a poem or story.

“This was challenging,” many said after we’d written and read aloud, and yet, “exciting.”  Our metaphors made the abstract visible, felt, something each person in the room could easily visualize.  Exploring the metaphors we use also helped us gain insight in and understanding of how we perceive and deal with cancer in our lives.

“Always in emergencies we invent narratives…Metaphor was one of my symptoms,” Anatole Broyard wrote in Intoxicated by My Illness, a memoir of his prostate cancer.  “I saw my illness as a visit to a disturbed country…I imagined it as a love affair with a demented woman who demanded things I had never done before…When the cancer threatened my sexuality, my mind became immediately erect.”

This week, pay attention to the metaphors you use every day to describe aspects of your life.  If you’re living with cancer, explore the metaphor that defines how you think about and navigate your way through it.  Begin with a little brainstorming as my group did this past week.  Then choose one, continue writing and see where it takes you.

“It’s a beautiful autumn day here,” my daughter said to me a week ago.  She had telephoned as she walked from her apartment in Toronto’s Annex neighborhood to the university.  I was sitting in my home office, bracing myself for another hot day, window shades closed and the fan running.  I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what she was seeing:  the air crisp, the brilliant blush of vibrant color as the leaves turn from green to red and yellow, a day perfect for walking—not like the arid and drought stricken Southern California landscape where I now live.

“I miss autumn,” I replied, remembering a line from a French-Canadian film I’d seen so many years ago at the Toronto Film Festival, when one of the actors described autumn “as the other side of spring.”

Two days after her call, the calendar proclaimed the end of summer and the beginning of fall.  “Not,” I grumbled, weary of the heat wave, “where I live.”  But within days, the heat abated and as it did, the hint of autumn was in the air.  True, it doesn’t wear as brilliant a coat as my former Canadian home, but as I stepped outside to walk my dog, an early morning routine, I felt my skin prickle.  The early morning air had a slight chill.  Where sunrise had been our companion just a week or two before, the mornings were now darker.  Autumn, San Diego style, was making an entrance.  All I had to do was pay attention.

In the autumn of 1968, Ted Kooser wrote in the preface to his book, Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison,during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning…hiking in the isolated country roads near where I live…During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing…  One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day… I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim…”

What struck me as I read Kooser’s poems was that he’d documented the reawakening of his spirit, his sensibilities as a poet, his awareness of and connection to the beauty of the natural world.  Cancer, despite his recovery, plays a barely noticeable role in his poems.  Rather, it’s what he notices as he walks that inspires each short poem.

I saw the season’s first bluebird
this morning, one month ahead
of its scheduled arrival.  Lucky I am
to go off to my cancer appointment
having been given a bluebird, and,
for a lifetime, have been given
this world.

Paying attention, as writers like Kooser, Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard remind us, is about slowing down and being attentive to the present, to what’s right in front of our eyes, to discover the beauty, the meaning, and even the metaphors that inform our lives.  As Anne Lamott observed, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.”

Mary Oliver’s poem, “Gratitude,” in which she poses—and answers—eight simple questions, is a lesson in paying attention.  “What did you notice,” she asks and then responds:

“The dew snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark…

What did you hear?

…the little bluebirds in their hot box;
the salty talk of the wren…

What did you admire?

The oaks, letting down their dark and hairy fruit;
the carrot, rising in its elongated waist…

What astonished you?
The swallows making their dip and turn over the water.
What would you like to see again?
My dog: her energy and exuberance, her willingness,
her language beyond all nimbleness of tongue…

What was most tender?
Queen Anne’s lace, with its parsnip root;
the everlasting in its bonnets of wool…
What was most wonderful?
…the sea lying back on its long athlete’s spine.
What did you think was happening?
 …so the gods shake us from our sleep.

(From:  What Do We Know: Poems, 2002)

Cancer–or any other serious illness or hardship–can keep us focused inward, on the crisis unfolding in our lives, on our bodies, on fear or all the potential and unwelcome possibilities of our illness.  It’s like we’re wearing blinders, forgetting to look out at the world around us and see all that gives us pleasure or comfort, however small.  Like Kooser’s short poems, add up those moments of noticing, of happiness or new insights, and they enlarge, helping us to feel more alive—shaken from our sleep—and grateful for those small, yet extraordinary moments of life that are available to us, only if we open our eyes and pay attention.

For today, I will memorize
the two trees now in end-of-summer light

and the drifts of wood asters as the yard slopes away toward
the black pond, blue

in the clouds that shine and float there, as if risen

from the bottom, unbidden…

The yard is a waiting room. I have my chair. You, yours…

(from “Solitudes,” by Margaret Gibson, in Broken Cup. © Louisiana State University Press, 2014.)

This week, take a walk, sit in your yard, or gaze out the window.  Write about one thing you see, one single gift of nature, of autumn, that calls you to it.  Pay attention.  Let what you observe be your inspiration.

At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world,
Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive.
  You empty yourself and wait, listening.

–Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek


Remember to get the weather in your god damned book—weather is very important.

(Ernest Hemingway (writing to John Dos Passos, from Selected Letters, 1917-1961)

The nightly newscasters must have taken Hemingway’s advice.  Hardly a day passes now without mention of the weather on national and local news.  Weather is news in today’s world, and the reports of its extremes have become more than a niggling concern.  2014, according to many scientists, is likely to be the hottest year on record, surpassing the record set in 2010.  In California, which is experiencing a severe drought, wildfires are burning all over the state.  Indoors and wilting in the heat wave last week, I broke my “fast” from the nightly news to stay updated on California’s wildfires, particularly those in Siskiyou County, where I spent my childhood.  I was horrified by the images.  Over 100,000 acres burning in Klamath National Forest, devastation in Weed, a small town near the base of Mount Shasta, and then, the King Fire, the largest, near Sacramento, set by an arsonist.  Heat, lightning, wind were fueling infernos.

She began as we huddled, six of us,

in the cellar, raising her voice above

those towering syllables…


Never mind she cried when storm candles

flickered, glass shattered upstairs.


(“An Octave Above Thunder,” by Carol Muske-Dukes, 1945)

It’s not just the drought, extreme heat or wildfires.  Across the country, the weather has been frightening and ferocious:  severe thunderstorms, high winds, flooding, tornadoes.  Images on television are heart-wrenching and terrifying.  And along the eastern seaboard, hurricane season has only just begun.

Has the water already

robbed us of our autumn food?

I climb the roof to look.


(“Flood,” by Miyazawa Kenji, in Selections, 2007)

Today, thousands of people in cities across the country will march in support of climate change.  “Sam Barratt, campaign director for the advocacy group Avaaz, said, “Climate change is no longer an environmental issue; it’s an everybody issue.”  An everybody issue:  Me. You. Us.

As 120 heads of state come together on Tuesday for this week’s United Nations Climate Summit, perhaps the sight of thousands, marching for climate change, will make a difference.  Yet we wonder:  Can the world’s nations actually agree on a path to avoid the increasingly devastating consequences of climate change, like sea-level rise, extreme drought and the fury of storms unlike any we’ve seen before?

According to the National Geographic News, the summit provides leaders a chance to signal how aggressive—or not—they will be in cutting emissions and in helping poor countries blunt the harm caused by droughts, sea-level rise, and other climate change effectsThe answer will not come, however, during the …summit.  This week’s summit is not a negotiating session for the next international agreement.  That happens next year when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meets in Paris and the when the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases (China, the United States and India) must to submit their plans to the UN.  Despite all the evidence of global warming and climate change, many worry that the current political climate between parties and countries make it unlikely the international community will ever reach a binding agreement on climate–a sobering thought for any of us.

What can we do?  We do what we can, consciously leaving less of a footprint than we’ve done in the past.  Perhaps we can save this beautiful blue and green planet from extinction before it’s too late.  Spend a few minutes and google “steps to save the earth” and you’ll find many small, but significant changes each of us can make in our daily life—changes that remind us never to take our world for granted.

This week, let the earth be your inspiration for writing.

“If the Earth,”

by Joe Miller

If the Earth were only a few feet in diameter, floating a few feet above a field somewhere, people would come from everywhere to marvel at it. People would walk around it marveling at its big pools of water, its little pools, and the water flowing between the pools. People would marvel at the bumps on it, and the holes in it, and they would marvel at the very thin layer of gas surrounding it and the water suspended in the gas. The people would marvel at all the creatures walking around the surface of the ball and at the creatures in the water. The people would declare it sacred because it was the only one, and they would protect it so that it would not be hurt. The ball would be the greatest wonder known, and people would come to pray to it, to be healed, to gain knowledge, to know beauty, and to wonder how it could be. People would love it and defend it with their lives because they would somehow know that their lives, their own roundness, could be nothing without it. If the Earth were only a few feet in diameter…”

(From:  Save the Earth, Jonathon Porritt. Ed., 1991)

 “Before you know what kindness really is,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “you must lose things…”

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

(From “Kindness”, by Naomi Shihab-Nye in The Words Under The Words ©1994)

When cancer or other serious illness strikes, life as we once knew it will never be the same.  In the loss that comes with the sense of self, the body we once took for granted, the landscape between those regions of kindness, does seem desolate.  But in small acts of compassion that we experience from others, hope somehow finds a way back in, solace is given, and we begin to heal and find our way back to life.  As Shihab-Nye says,

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Kindness, the simple act of friendship, compassion and generosity to others, has a long history in humankind.  It was one of the “Knightly Virtues,”a set of ‘standards the Knights of the Middle Ages adhered to in daily living and their interactions with others.  Confucius urged his followers to “recompense kindness with kindness. Across cultures and religions, acts of kindness are valued. The Talmud claims that “deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.”  Iman Musa Al-Kadhim, seventh after the prophet Mohammed, wrote that “Kindness is half of life.  Paul of Tarsus defined love as being “patient and kind”(I Corinthians), while in Buddhism,  Mettä, one of the Ten Perfections, is most often translated as “loving-kindness.”

Kindness is defined as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself… “  In Aristotle’s Rhetoric.  Even the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche described kindness and love as “the most curative herbs and agents in human intercourse.” (Source:  Wikipedia)

As many of us have discovered during serious illness or life hardship, kindness can exert healing power to our wounded spirits.  If we’re paying attention, we often discover kindness when we least expect it, from people we may not even know.  It’s in those small acts of kindness that we discover hope and gratitude for the small gifts in life, ones we once overlooked or barely even noticed.

“Finding God At Montefiore Hospital,” a poem written by cancer survivor Lorraine Ryan, illustrates the power of kindness.  Ryan writes about a janitor, Juan, who mopped her hospital floor at night:

I remember the rhythm of the dunking;

The mop going into the pail

Juan squeezing the mop

The mop hitting the floor with a whoosh…

With every move, he looked up:

“How’s it really going?”

“Did your boy come up today?”

“How is he doing without you at home?”


Sometimes I couldn’t lift my head

off the pillow—

when vomiting and mouth sores

wouldn’t let me speak—

the swish of his mop

bestowed the final blessing

of the night…

 (In: The Cancer Poetry Project, Karin B. Miller, Ed., 2001)

As Ryan’s poem illustrates, kindness helps us find our way out of darkness.  It helps us heal.  Compassion and caring, are often manifested in small acts of concern:  How’s it really going?  This is kindness, the small everyday acts that go a long way to healing ourselves and others.  Kindness not only helps us heal; we become better—kinder ourselves– for experiencing it.  The world could use a little more kindness between people, don’t you think?

Here’s a suggestion for writing.  First, take a blank sheet of paper and list all the acts of kindness you remember, ones that brightened your day, eased your pain, and made a difference in your day.  Perhaps you played it forward—because of the kindness you received, you were motivated to reach out to other friends, acquaintances or even strangers in need.  Write about how an act of kindness eased the desolation, sadness or loneliness you experienced during a difficult time.

My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.

(“September, The First Day of School,” by Howard Nemerov, from : Trying Conclusions:  New and Selected Poems 1961-1991)


It’s back to school in my family.  My grandson, packing his new knapsack the night before his first day of kindergarten, included the items he felt most important for this new beginning, his favorite action figures, a toy car, a plastic dinosaur, and three pre-school notebooks.  His mother posted on Facebook, “Tomorrow, it begins.”  I remembered her first day of school so many years ago, the tug at my heart as I stood at the door and waved (and waved) as she crossed the street, accompanied by her sister and the school crossing guard, knowing we had entered a new chapter of childhood and learning.

Now it was my daughter’s turn, accompanying her son to the bus stop and waving good-bye as he boarded the bus with the other children for the short ride to the American school on Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa.  If he was nervous, it was masked by his early morning announcement that he was invested with magical powers, necessary, I assume, to ward off any unforeseen difficulties he might encounter in his new school.  But all was well: he returned later in the day, most excited about being able to check out a library book on his own.

My husband returned to school too, working on Labor Day to deal with the administrative duties as chair of a doctoral studies program, and predictably, working late into the evening to prepare for his first class on Tuesday afternoon.  Today, a Sunday, he’s returned to his office at the university to catch up on work he was unable to complete during the week.  While many of our friends might be traveling or enjoying a relaxed day at the beach or on the golf course, he and I remain ensconced in the world of school, teaching and, despite our many years of doing so, learning a few new things whether we want to or not!

I still teach just as my husband does, despite the fact we both have moved past the official retirement age.  I do it because I love it, because I like to think it keeps me “young,” and because I am constantly exposed to new people, new ideas.  At least, that’s what I tell myself.  But this week I had to go back to school to learn how to use a new online teaching platform for my UCLA classes.  A few days in advance, I emailed the technical folks.

Would the seven and a half years of courses and content I’ve developed on “Blackboard” be transferred to the new platform, or at the very least, saved for my reference? 

I didn’t like the reply.

Unfortunately, no.  You should download and save your courses (syllabi, lectures, readings and other documents) in the next few weeks.  Blackboard will no longer be available.

I drove to Staples and purchased another flash drive and began the downloads.  I’m still not finished.  Meanwhile, my new online training began, and I logged into the site to acquaint myself with the new platform.

Of course, I got confused.  I’m fairly technologically adept, but to learn the new platform, I had to “unlearn” the old.  Worse, there were assignments to be completed, and each by a certain date.  I grumbled and on Tuesday afternoon, began the training and working on the first assignment.  Four long hours later, I finished—or thought I had—the week’s required tasks:  creating course content for the first week of the class I start teaching October.  Blurry-eyed but satisfied, I logged out and went back to my current class on Blackboard, where I had ten student submissions waiting for my critique.

Two days later, amid writing critique, hosting a student conference call, and meeting with my dentist to discuss the impending dental surgery scheduled for this week, I received an email from the administrator of the new online platform, notifying me I had not completed Assignment #1, which was now three days overdue!

“What?”  I logged in.  All my work was there.  Completed.  I fired back a frustrated email—one that has yet to be answered—complaining that I had finished the assignment and on time.  I mean really, I have always been a diligent student.  I have a doctorate, for heaven’s sake.  How dare they tell me I had not completed the assignment and on schedule?   A half hour later, I was embarrassed to discover I had to “send in” my assignment to the technical people by pressing the “submit” button.  Whoops.

I was face to face with my own inconsistencies against the beliefs I hold dear: in lifelong learning, the importance of creating new neural connections, staying mentally agile…you know the rest.  I was just as irritable and frustrated by something I hadn’t mastered as I suspect many of my students are with my “reminders” about their late assignments.  It’s good, I admitted to myself, to go back to school and be a beginner again from time to time.  It keeps me humble.  Real.  And learning.

Each fall the children must endure together
What every child also endures alone:
Learning the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That worlds invisible and visible

Bow down before it…

It’s funny to think about, but now that Nathan is in school, I know it won’t be long before he will be teaching me about this technological world I inhabit, he’ll surely be able to figure out a new online program or platform in a matter of minutes, while I struggle through the directions two and three times in less than successful attempts to figure things out.  But even if I’m slower at catching on to new things than I once was, I hope that as long as I am alive, I will keep “going back to school” and continue to find wonder, excitement, and new discoveries every day of my life.

But I’ll be honest, I hope that most of that new learning will happen with my computer turned off.

This week, write about a time you had to learn something new, whether in a course, using new technology, or even about yourself.  What’s it like to be a beginner at something again?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 288 other followers