Tag Archives: Writing

Peace through Writing

As usual, I’ve been thinking about peace a lot, particularly in the wake of recent school shootings in the US. This has provoked a great deal of discussion among students and staff at school, much of which has included shaking heads and heavy sighs. Again?

Over the weekend, I got an email from one of the instructors from my undergrad education program begging us to protect our students by rejecting Trump’s call to arms. It’s astounding that she even felt the need to write that email; it’s astounding that there are actually people who believe this to be a good idea. I had a conversation with a sixteen-year-old student about it, but I haven’t met an educator who agrees with this approach.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing in cafés over the last several weeks, setting aside a few hours after my run on a weekend morning to sit over coffee and puzzle through whatever ideas come to mind. I’m working on an extended project about peace in schools as an attempt to provide an actionable framework for how to better our world. We desperately need a better world.

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View from Drury Lane, one of my favorite haunts.

This is the longest independent project I’ve worked on since I was a student and my time to write is one of joy. I look forward to my hours in a comfortable space with coffee, perhaps some music, and the privacy that comes from being in a room full of strangers. As a writer who is not pressed for time (among the reasons why I have a day job and have not monetized this blog), I do the following to maintain momentum and excitement:

  1. Set aside a time to write and stick to it. I’m flexible about whether this work happens on Saturday or Sunday, but I won’t skip a week. Instead, I schedule other weekend events around it.
  2. At the end of the allotted time, stop writing. If you’re stuck and struggling, you have until next week to get unstuck. If you’re on a roll and inspired, take a couple quick notes and then you’ll be excited to start again next week.
  3. Find somewhere comfortable, preferably away from the rest of the week and the rest of your life. Being interrupted is hugely distracting and it takes significant time to get back on track. That’s why I find it helpful to leave my apartment or, at the very least, to sit outside where I’m separated from my daily surroundings.
  4. If you have an exercise routine, stick to it and fit the writing in around it. My brain works better (and I’m better at sitting still) once my body has warmed up. For others, the brain needs to be active before the body can be active. Know thyself.
  5. Write first, edit later. Say what you have to say and then worry about how you’re saying it.

These ideas are informed by personal experience and the guidance of people far wiser than I. On Writing by Stephen King, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami all provide philosophies on writing from people with experience, credibility, and successful writing careers. And all three are excellent reads!

Much of my writing in the past has been escapist; a friend called me prolific during my first few months in New York. I write to explain the world to myself and to others, but also out of a sense of desperation and a desire to leave a meaningful imprint on the world. There’s so much to say and far too little time to say it. Yesterday I woke up to the news that the father of a friend’s friend had passed away. Life is fleeting. There’s a sense of running out of time that keeps me on edge.

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I passed this mural on the wall of a guesthouse when I was walking to Artistry a few weeks ago. Pretty, right?

My best work is urgent but detached. It requires me to leave passion, rage, and other strong emotions aside for a moment and look at what I’m trying to say through the eyes of those who are not in my heart or in my mind, not feeling what I’m feeling or thinking what I’m thinking. That’s where the feeling of clarity and exhaustion comes from when I decide that I’ve done enough editing and can move on. But I’m not there right now. I’m still in the writing stage of my current project, still feeling the excitement of writing and the need to write.

There’s a mug on my desk at work, though, that reminds me to slow down. It’s very plain, cream colored with black writing:

peace. it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. it means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. (unknown)

 

An Open Letter to New York City: Part II

Dear New York City,

When it’s a sunny day and I’m sitting outside in a park, it’s hard to hate you. And the truth is, it’s hard to hate you at all now that I’ve been here long enough. You’ve taken me in and somehow made yourself a home in me. You’re in the feet that have traversed your streets, the legs that have climbed the stairs of your subways, the chest that has felt the vibrations of your buses, trains, and street music, the hands that have opened countless doors, the eyes that have seen people from all walks of life, and the mind that decided to give you a chance.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t know that we’re best friends. Some days, I think you’re shunning me altogether. Those are the days where I can’t find what I’m looking for, when I take a wrong turn, when I miss the early Metro-North train, when I have to go to three grocery stores and the streetcar man to find one item. Those are the days when no one looks up, no one smiles, and no one seems to care whether the people around them are there at all.

Those are the days, New York, when you tire me.

But more often, now that I’ve met you where you are, more often you’re a delight. Your sights, sounds, smells, and tastes tickle the senses in ways both good and bad but always alive. You’re demanding because your offers never end. There’s culture, food, and experience on literally every block. You’re always awake, always ready, always open to take in the next weary traveler. But you’re tough, too. You don’t give in without a fight and I’ve certainly never seen you give up.

New York people have stories and you feature prominently in all of them. New York people are here for a reason, hustling for a reason, and all attribute their actions to the energy, drive, and culture that you’ve cultivated. You create spaces for people who don’t have patience for you, waiting just outside until they peek out. For them, for me, you have quiet little cafés, parks and river paths, libraries and independent bookstores. You reserve places for the people who are afraid to find them on their own. And when they’re ready, you open the doors to everything else that is out there, the glitz, glamour, grittiness, and attitude of the greatest city in the world.

And of course, you have community neighborhoods that all feel different. That’s my favorite part about you – you take all these people, you watch as they split themselves into group after group, and you let them develop into a patchwork of lives, a quilt of everything that makes you who you are. You cross rivers. You encompass islands. You’re connected by bridges and tunnels, by the people who cross them and by the people whose lives are crossed by them. You’re a story of who we are and how we got here. You’re a story of the people who flock to you and will continue to come.

Without a doubt, you’ve changed me. You’ve made me more curious about people but less likely to voice my curiosity. You’ve made me warier but more willing to test the waters. Because of you, I’m more confident but much quieter. I’ve asked more questions, read more books, found more answers, wiped away more tears. You’ve forced me to embody resilience, to learn from experience, to solve problems I never expected to have. You’ve taught me to ask for help and to accept it when it comes. You showed me people who struggle and promised a path forward. I followed you and found it.

Once upon a time, you scared me a little. You were too big, too loud, and too fast. You were full of people who knew you and loved you. I didn’t know you. I didn’t love you. Some days, all I want is to love you. Other days, I catch myself doing just that. I’m ready to say goodbye to you only because you’ve left me wanting more. You’re not going anywhere and I’m sure I’ll be back one day. There’s no place like you, New York City, and I’m grateful I’ve had a chance to call you my home. See you soon.

Love always,

Rebecca Michelle

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PS You can read my first open letter to NYC here.

The Perfect School Day

It’s probably clear from this blog by now that education is very (dare I say “increasingly”?) important to me. I’ve written a lot about education in general, and more specifically on the purpose of education. Much of what prompted those posts came from reflection and discussion with Kyle when I was working in Singapore. 

Here are some of Kyle’s past writings on the purpose of education:

And mine:

We’ve also literally written thousands of unpublished words on the topic, including over 10,000 words in an unfinished e-book that has been on the back burner for months, but spurred on most of my education-related thinking over the past year or so. I’ve rethought a lot of what I “knew” about school, teachers, and students and I’m excited about the possibility of true education reform.

So with all the abstract philosophical thought on the topic and much reviewing of the educational literature, here is a complete “perfect day” of secondary school as Kyle and I envision it.

The Daily Schedule
9:00 AM – Start of school. This isn’t super important, other than it isn’t super early. Many high school students naturally sleep in a bit later due to staying up later and there really isn’t any reason to begin at 7:00 AM.

9:00-10:30 AM – Reading. Ideally this is aimed at current local, national, international, or global problems with current events from the news or other texts. The goal is simply to be aware at the beginning of each day of the suffering that is taking place all around us. This is not done to instill pessimism, but to inspire compassion – the desire to alleviate suffering in others. Literature that deals with human created suffering such as Frankenstein make for good selections during this time as well.

Conversation. This is a time to discuss what’s been read and share what interests and engages us. There can be a specific topic for this first hour, say sex trafficking of women around the world, or more open-ended reading of current affairs and sharing issues of personal interests. The aim is simply to engage in meaningful conversation about the state of the world with the purpose of refining ever more acutely what causes suffering and understanding the variety of contexts that contribute to it.

Investigation. This is a time to investigate what solutions have been generated for the causes of suffering we’ve been reading and discussing and to figure out what we can do as individuals, a group, and a community (both locally and societally) to alleviate it. This should spur lots of insight and opportunities for the social entrepreneurship block to come later in the day as possible gaps are identified in current attempts to deal with issues. Students might investigate political, economic, social, or technological solutions that have been attempted to deal with world problems.

10:30-11:00 AM – Break. This is a time to simply relax, have a snack if needed and transition to the next phase of the day.

11:00 AM-12:30 PM  – Physical education. This is a time for strength training, cardiovascular training, mobility training, and other athletics. This is also an opportunity to meet in small groups or one-on-one to discuss nutrition, mental health, and emotional health in order to increase and monitor overall well-being. The aim is pragmatic, how do we take care of ourselves as humans?

12:30-1:10 PM – Lunch.

1:10-2:40 PM – Social entrepreneurship. This is a time to work collaboratively on projects that aim to alleviate suffering and improve the world. Creativity, service, design, innovation, STEM, and business skills are intermingled in order to develop projects and programs that would have the greatest possible impact in any particular area. All members of the school community spend this time actively engaged in social entrepreneurship work, which could also include supporting one another’s enterprises, meeting with community partners and facilitators, and working off campus. This is also an opportunity to attend roundtable discussions to present work completed so far and elicit feedback from others, as well as figure out collaborative partnerships.

2:40-3:00 PM – Break.

3:00-4:30 PM – Personal growth and well-being. This is a time to end the day on a positive note, examining personal strengths, goals, and psychological states. This is also time to follow individual passions, such as reading literature, playing music, learning languages, creative writing, playing sports, making videos, blogging, or simply relaxing. The rejuvenation that comes from this part of the day will help the following day to commence with similar excitement. Engagement and flow should occur often and students can leave for the day feeling charged and full of zeal.

A Day in the Life of a Student
“Air pollution increases amidst warnings.”
“Migrants face deportation.”
“Refugees seek urgent medical care”

Maia stretches and looks up. It’s nearly 9:30, the end of the half-hour reading block that begins the day. Maia, her peers, and their teachers have been together as a team for the past year and a half. While they don’t always agree on how to most effectively tackle the suffering in the world, they care for each other and about those around them.

Soon, there’s enough movement to indicate that the readers are ready to talk. They readjust themselves around the room, remaining comfortable, but better able to see and hear each other.

“I’ve been reading a lot about climate change today.” The comment comes from a student perched on an ottoman next to a stack of books with titles like The Age of Sustainable Development.

“Did you see the New York Times article on the summit?” Maia asks, still sitting against the wall. “There’s a picture of the Doomsday Clock in my head.”

“I thought Canada put up a particularly strong stance, actually, and that might push other countries to follow through with caps on emissions.” A student new to the group states, sitting at a desk.

“That’s pretty broad, though,” says a student on the floor near Maia. “Yesterday, I read a lot of this book on the Copenhagen Consensus and there are real proposals that real people are working on, but it’s hard to tell whether emission caps are actually more effective than other suggestions, like bioengineering. On the one hand, it’s an easier sell. So maybe that’s better than nothing.”

The conversation continues for about thirty minutes and covers a range of topics from climate change to micronutrient deficiencies in small children. As always, the focus is on understanding why suffering occurs. Gradually, students return to their laptops and put in headphones, ready to move on from discussion.

Feeling agency to act is important. Maia and several classmates have lately been investigating vaccination efforts in Africa. They read Half the Sky together earlier in the year, which prompted questions about sex trafficking due to poverty, leading to a foray into tropical diseases. When they come across a new report on Ebola, one group member calls over a teacher to ask about virus mutations while others gather around a YouTube video explaining the science.

After about thirty minutes, it’s time to stop. Maia has learned to monitor her body for fatigue and tries to pause in her work before reaching a point of frustration. While some stay to continue working, Maia needs a half-hour of relaxation and maybe some frisbee. She takes an apple out of her bag and joins a loud group of friends on their way outside.

Frisbee leaves Maia feeling warmed up and ready to keep moving. She has a meeting with a nutrition counselor at 11, the beginning of the physical education block. After a long exploration of ethics and sentience, Maia has decided to become a vegetarian and wants guidance on her new diet. If she can’t take care of herself, she can’t make the world a better place. A guidance counselor taught her that last year after she experienced a series of anxiety attacks. After her meeting, Maia joins a group of classmates for a trail run in the woods on the edges of campus.

When they get back to the gym, Maia heads straight to her favorite coach. She wants to add mobility training to keep her hips mobile for the barbell squats she already does with the hope of squatting one and a half times her own body weight. She found a series of exercises online and asks for help with her form. The gym begins to clear out around 12:30 as students freshen up before lunch.

The afternoon campus is unrecognizable from the calm of the morning. Teachers, students, and community members are everywhere, all working on a myriad of social entrepreneurship projects. Maia’s group is putting together an education campaign about vaccination. They’ve partnered with another group focusing on fundraising efforts to implement the campaign. Each group takes a turn updating the other on what they’ve accomplished since their last check-in two weeks earlier. A teacher joins the groups to ask whether they’ve contacted any humanitarian aid agencies, which Maia’s group adds to their task list. Across the room, a few students and teachers are gathered around a whiteboard with a series of questions: “How do we create vaccines? What are they? Are there vaccines we don’t have, but would like to have? What’s been done to create them? Can we try making one?” Pointing this out to her group members, Maia joins in the discussion. This could be another good partnership.

It’s 2:45 by the time Maia’s group decides to stop for the day. They have a “next steps” action plan that should get them through the rest of the week. Other groups have already paused in their social entrepreneurship work and gone back outside to take a break.

Maia returns to her locker for her yoga mat and makes her way to an open studio space. After learning about yoga and meditation from a friend last year, Maia started an afternoon yoga class during the personal growth block. At the beginning of class, she invites each person to check in with themselves and set an intention for their practice. They’ll be in this space for an hour so she encourages them to focus on altruism, approaching each person with the goal of enhancing their overall well-being in every interaction.

After class, Maia steps over a robot whizzing down the hallway and follows the sounds of yelling and cheering to a room at the end of the hall. Someone mentioned a new virtual reality video game and maybe these are the people to ask about it.

At 4:30, Maia joins the waves of students leaving campus. She feels content, optimistic about the work she’s doing, and already looking forward to meeting with her project group again tomorrow. She makes a mental note to see what the team of teachers has been working on; she hasn’t really talked with them this week. Maia flips through her phone to a podcast recorded daily by a group of students.

“Good afternoon,” the host begins. “Thanks for joining us on What to Be. Today’s special guest is the executive chef at a local restaurant that provides job training and childcare for mothers.”

Maia smiles. That chef is a friend who graduated two years ago. Cool.

Final Thoughts
The actual blocked timing of much of this day ought to be more flexible than is written out here. It’s important that students learn how to manage their time and what is important. If they are fully wrapped up in a project they are working on involving social entrepreneurship, it is in no way urgent that they stop so they can move onto the final chunk of the day focused on personal growth and well-being; they are almost certainly already feeling a sense of personal growth and well-being if they are truly engaged in the project and feel a deep sense of meaning and purpose. Let them continue on.

The shape of this day is designed so that students can be exposed to problems early, work hard on thinking about and reflecting on them, take a break to physically recharge with exercise and food, move onto solving problems and creating value in the world for others, and then finish with some personal “me” time that explores what gives each of us pleasure and a sense of well-being. They will be prepared to act as responsible citizens who can think critically and participate in civic debates while also being ready for employment that is purposeful and creative. When not acting as citizens or employees they will understand how to relax and enjoy themselves in personal activities that contribute to a sense of rejuvenation and flow.

Learn, exercise, connect, create, be. Do our students really need to focus on anything else?