I see your courageous spirit and honor it

spelling_bee_kids
It takes courage to compete in the school spelling bee!

In these days of corruption, constant shocks and upsets, each of us need to call upon our inner warrior of light. Like the heroes of popular culture, we must go within and conjure our brightest, most courageous selves to come forward and lead. We are collectively in the midst of an unprecedented learning/ teaching moment—through the power of compassion, heart bravery, and deep listening to one another, we are growing our human “movement of movements” toward a new epoch for humanity and Earth.
Dear Readers, what a messy, chaotic and exhilarating moment it is!

Every day the national and world headlines are filled with examples of people standing up and speaking truth to power. We applaud their bravery and empathize with the repercussions of those acts of courage. Some are chastened, others repressed, and sadly, some pay the ultimate price of their very lives for taking decisions of extreme moral courage. Yet, if we pay attention to the people in our very own daily sphere, we see that acts of bravery are all around.

I’d like to give you an example of ordinary children displaying courage from my own life. This school year I am tutoring children who struggle with reading in an elementary school outside of Denver. A month ago, I volunteered to coordinate the school’s annual spelling bee. Having never organized one before, I had quite the learning curve of how to pull off this minor feat. Fortunately, through the help of a few knowledgeable teachers and the kind-hearted principal of my school, I managed to check off all the moving parts, finalize the contestant list of 22 students, hold practice sessions, and arrange for our bee to happen.

Finally, the day for our spelling bee arrived. At 1:30 pm, a group of parents and family members were seated in our cafeteria on one side, rows of nervous student contestants on the other. There were 22 students ranging from third through fifth grade, all of whom had cleared the 85% correct score on the written test they needed to compete. I sat at the table with three judges, all teachers from our school. Our principal acted as the MC and Pronouncer (the one who gives the spelling words to each student). She did a fabulous job of setting the tone—this is fun, it’s practice, and if you wish, you can use this spelling bee as one of the amazing extra things you did in elementary school this year!—for the students. Each student wore a name badge, and took their turn introducing themselves to the audience and judges. First we had a practice round as a warm up to help them get used to the protocol of answering—“olive: O L I V E: olive.” Then the rounds began. For the next 45 minutes the students competed, taking their respective turns at spelling increasingly more difficult words. Slowly, students spelled a word incorrectly and were out of the competition. After seven rounds, only the top two spellers remained. Then came the final, nail-biting round of spelling. If one student missed the word, it went to the other to attempt the correct spelling. If they both got it wrong, another word was given. This continued for about 10 minutes as we all watched intently to see who would be the ultimate winner. The finalists were a fourth grade boy and a fifth grade girl. They both did an extraordinary job of staying cool while concentrating on their mental puzzling out of the spelling words. In the breathless finish, the girl spelled incorrectly, leaving the boy to give the correct answer and the prize of first place in the bee. Afterwards, congratulations were showered upon not only the top finalists and winner, but for all the students who competed in our spelling bee.

Watching our students competing today, I was struck by the degree of bravery they each displayed by their act of showing up, standing up, spelling the words to the best of their ability, and stepping away when they failed to give the correct answer. There was an undeniable feeling of pressure on each of them to perform well, to give the correct spelling, and to concede defeat with grace. Each student performed admirably, showing all of us adults that doing something difficult can be an inspiring, courageous act and one that they can be proud of accomplishing.

Dear Readers, in these extreme and uncertain times, I encourage you to take notice of where and how you act courageously in your daily life. Who in your sphere inspires you to be brave? And just as importantly, who do YOU inspire to be brave? There has never been a more urgent need to notice and celebrate courage and compassionate action than right now. Keep calm, stay steady, and keep on going. The world needs your light, kindness, and your moral courage.

 

We need Mary Oliver more than ever

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www.storemypic.com

Mary Oliver left her body this past week, on January 17, 2019. The poet who spent a good deal of her life musing about death has finally experienced it firsthand. I believe she was ready to go and find out what’s on the other side of the veil.

Some have written of her work in less than kind terms, as is always the case when a creative person becomes famous. But for the many fans of her poetry across the world, Mary Oliver remains a beloved commentator of the human heart, keen observer of the natural world, and philosopher of life on planet Earth.

I first became acquainted with Mary Oliver’s poetry when I was in my early thirties. I purchased her book New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, Boston), at a poignant moment in my life when her words resonated deeply in my soul. That was over twenty years ago.  Since then, I’ve had certain periods when poetry took a prominent seat in my everyday and I’d pull out her volume anew. Her poems never failed to inspire and affirm my experience, as old and beloved friends usually do.

In this week’s New York Times articles about her death, journalists compared her style of nature poetry to Walt Whitman and even Thoreau and Emily Dickinson—she kept good company. But Oliver was fully present in our time, having lived through the majority of the 20th century and the start of the 21st. Yes, her overarching themes were about the dynamic relationship between nature and human beings, and she mostly used first person point of view.  In the poetic tradition, the personal I is the most effective way to carry meaning to the reader. In a world full of artifice, egoism, arrogance and materialism, Oliver was a voice of sanity, reason and heart. Her keen observations were unflinching as she deftly described and questioned our human experience in the face of vast and unexplainable forces. Her voice was at once tender and unsentimental, reminding us of the importance of nature within our human experience.

In these days of ever increasing technology, artificial intelligence, and furiously increasing capitalism which by now is threatening the very existence of life on Earth, Mary Oliver’s deceptively simple, clear-eyed verse is more needed than ever. In her poem The Sun (New and Selected Poems, 1992) she asks,

have you ever felt for anything
such wild love—
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed—
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

In her poem The Ponds (New and Selected Poems, 1992) she marvels at the perfection of the wild lilies growing at the edges of the ponds near her home. She writes

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided—
and that one wears an orange blight—
and this one is a glossy cheek

half-nibbled away—
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—
that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

Oliver remains a master of metaphorical poetry. A familiar pattern in her work is to first give the reader gorgeous descriptions of the natural world, and then deftly weave them within the framework of the human experience. I know of no other poet who uses this technique so seamlessly and succinctly. She simultaneously marvels at nature, wonders about the divinity who created it all, and asks us how to reckon with the unfathomable mystery that is our life, our planet, our home. Here is one of my favorite poems,
The Summer Day (House of Light, 1990).

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

In our present, highly chaotic and anxious times, reading Oliver’s calm, forthright and clear-eyed poems brings a sense of grounding, peace and sanity to our souls. Much like meditation and walks in the woods (for those fortunate enough to have woods nearby in which to walk), her poems remind us to be present, to breathe deep, and to be awake to the wonder of life inherent here on our beloved Earth. It is more challenging than ever to maintain sanity in such a world, but Oliver reminds us, through unerringly clear vision, of why we must do so. In her famous poem In Blackwater Woods (American Primitive, 1983) she writes,

Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

You must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

On an ordinary Thursday in January, 2019, Mary Oliver let it go. She let go of the world after holding it against her bones, caressing it ever so lovingly, so tenderly.  I am sure I speak for many others when I say how very grateful I am to her for holding up such a compassionate and clear mirror so we all may see ourselves and our planet reflected within it.

 

With Highest Praise

summa-cum-laude
http://www.threadless.com

In just a few more days, I will graduate from Metropolitan State University of Denver with a Bachelor of Science degree. The culmination of my higher educational journey has truly been a long and winding road. In fact, it began more than thirty years ago.

On December 14, 2018, I will sit among hundreds of other students in the Denver Coliseum, and listen to President Janine Davidson and others give inspirational speeches to our graduating class of 2018. Then, I’ll get in the queue with the rest, and wind my way up to the stage, as the announcer calls out my name, “Leigh Jardine, Summa cum Laude!” I’ll shake the Department Chair’s hand and receive my diploma holder. I’ll walk down the stairs, giddy, and proudly, in my full dignity, walk back to my seat as the rest of my class takes their turn doing the same.

In that moment, when the announcer calls my name to the crowd of thousands of people who have come to witness our graduation from university, I will realize an achievement that I had given up on long ago. For me, this commencement ceremony will be unlike any other I’ve experienced in life. It marks the public witnessing of my finishing, with highest praise, a journey of learning, growing, and accomplishing a goal that had eluded me for many years.

It seems like little in our modern culture is taken very seriously, or given much respect. The cynicism and practice of “dissing” others is a very real disease of society that has infected people through popular culture in a myriad of insidious ways. For many in western cultures, getting a bachelor’s degree is no more important or special than making it through high school—a means to an end, whether that is a decent-paying job or the ticked box when applying to graduate school. I know there are plenty of young people who only want to “be done” with their academic career so they can get out and start making money, and living a “real life” as opposed to the unreal life they led as an undergrad. My own response to that line of thinking now is incredulous.

Now into my sixth decade of living on Earth this time round, being a university student has been a profound joy. Especially because of the wonderful, self-designed major program I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of, I have had the delicious freedom to pick and choose the majority of courses I took. When some piece of the plan I’d set up with my advisor didn’t feel like the right fit, I’d go back to the drawing board and find a different course or set of courses that did. In fact, there’s a word for students like me: Multipotentialites.

According to the website Puttylike, a multipotentialite is “an educational and psychological term referring to a pattern found among intellectually gifted individuals. [Multipotentialites] generally have diverse interests across numerous domains and may be capable of success in many endeavors or professions; they are confronted with unique decisions as a result of these choices.”

The day I learned that what I’d struggled against my entire life, believing the socially-normative story that people like me are just losers who can’t get it together long enough to “make something of ourselves,” actually had a name and was recognized by some as a positive personality trait, was a turning point in my life. It was true, I’d never been able to stick with one job or career path for more than a few years before getting bored or burnt out, and then I’d begin the process of finding the next new thing to throw my creativity and curiosity into full-speed. For years I thought this was due to a serious character flaw, perhaps owing to my Gemini astrological sun sign, or maybe some dark, undiagnosed psychological problem I’d never been able to overcome. Then, sitting in a room full of other students and professors for a course on promoting our Individualized Degree, we were collectively enlightened to the fact that we weren’t losers or lame-beaus at all, but that we were, in fact, a bunch of cool Multipotentialites!
I went home feeling extraordinarily gratified that afternoon.

My bachelor’s degree is unique. It’s titled “Creative Arts, Women and Nonprofit Studies,” with a minor in English Rhetoric, Composition and Professional Writing. (The minor was already a thing; fortunately I didn’t need to invent that too.) The wonderful irony of me, Leigh Jardine, studying English as my minor, after being a writer my whole life and loving the English language with all its crazy wackiness and illogical frustrations—has been sheer pleasure.  Plus, most of the English professors whose courses I took are my kinda peeps—serious about learning, enthusiastic about English, words, and nerdy about the finer details of grammar, style guides, proper citations, annotated bibliographies, and the history of our absurd and wonderful mother tongue. It was gratifying to be among peers who loved the study of words and how they fit together into coherency.

We’ve all watched celebrities as they stand up at awards ceremonies, reeling off long lists of names, to thank all the folks along the way who helped them achieve their dream of fill-in-the-blank. We all know how tiresome that can be for the rest of us. But, in this moment of near-completion of my personal dream, I completely empathize with why they make everyone suffer through those five-minute-long-thank-you speeches. Nobody accomplishes their dreams on an island. We do it in rowboats, as teams in flow. I have many fine rowers to thank during the past eight semesters at MSU Denver.

The past two and a half years of being a student again have been enlightening in so many ways. I’ve learned a great deal about Millennials, intersectionality, racism, feminism, sexism, and many other isms. I’ve gained a deeper understanding of why higher education is so valuable for the upliftment of our society. I’ve come to greatly admire the work that many dedicated people are doing to lift up those on the margins in our communities and around the world. And, importantly, I’ve come to view the world we live in through a broader lens than I had before. My perspective has widened and deepened as I’ve come to view people in a more humane way than ever before. We are all doing what we can to survive under very chaotic circumstances in our world. I am fully aware of my privilege to be able to study in a peaceful city, to have plenty to eat and nice clothes to wear and to have a warm, cozy apartment I can afford. I’m fortunate to have my beloved daughters living nearby. I’m fortunate to be able to take a reliable bus downtown to campus each day and back home each evening. And I am privileged to possess an American passport. There are far too many in the world who have none of these things, and are suffering greatly in ways I cannot even begin to fathom.

I will be looking up when I stand to receive my diploma. I will also be looking straight ahead toward the future. Right now I honestly don’t know what I’ll be doing with my life in a year’s time. But at this moment, in the middle of December of 2018, in the smackdab middle of my life, I’m feeling fine with beginner’s mind. I don’t have to know, only to trust that I’m just exactly where I’m supposed to be, shining as brightly and showing up as bravely as I can.