Why not

About 200 years ago in North America
people were avid readers and debaters.
Almost everyone could write and read,
including North Carolina.

In 1835, the English politician Richard Cobden announced that there was six times as much newspaper reading in the United States as in England.
And they are said to have grown
and have learned
from their daily debates at the common breakfast table.

As children, they learned to read well as early as five to eight years old,
and read what everybody else read,
complex and relevant and allusive, news and novels and poems,
despite a lack of schooling,
despite of working
in the coal mines.

Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day.

In all this hardship and extreme working conditions
they did not lack meaning,
they did not have to choose between a plastic toy and a tablet.
They did not suffer the Imposter Syndrome.

Sam Blumenfeld wrote in his book, The New Illiterates: One day she found her three-year-old working his way through a text alone at the kitchen table, reading S-am, Sam, m-an, man, and so on. »I had just taught him his letter sounds. He picked the rest up and did it himself. That’s how simple it is.« said his mother.

In 1867 an eight-year old girl wrote: »I’m a trapper in the Gamer Pit. I have to trap without a light and I’m scared. I go at four and sometimes half past three in the morning and come out at five and a half past. I never go to sleep. Sometimes I sing when I’ve light, but not in the dark, I dare not sing then.« John Taylor Gatto, New York City Teacher of the Year 1989, 1990 and 1991, commented: »She could write so eloquently with no formal schooling at all.«

Then, during the Second Industrial Revolution
with the advent of forced schooling
all over the world
as a next step
forests became wood yards
and
fish became fish stocks
and
humans became human resources
and
they learned to be perfectly indifferent to all that.

Instead of the coal mines
they learned to spend their days
in brightly lit pits,
in front of brightly lit panels,
inside ergonomically shaped workstations,
still convinced of what was required,
afar from the rhythms of nature.

They learned to distrust each other,
and were conscientious enough
to give each other good reasons to do so.

They learned to do work that had no meaning to them,
and buy things because someone else said
„I bought that too!”

They lived in an endless search for meaning
and connection
and safety.
But the pain just kept flaring up,
no matter what they tried.

And now
despite all the hard work
and all the discipline
and all those tears
and all those sacrifices
it looks like as if the floods and the wildfires can’t be stopped
and as if the honey bees and the birds and the fish are not making their comebacks
and as if
humans
and most other creatures
might not even survive 50 more years.

Should we go ahead?
Or should we change?
What should we do?
Whom should we ask?

While waiting for an answer, as a next step,
why not allow ourselves to feel again,
to read again,
to love again,
to trust again,
to care for others and help them heal,
as this is the thing we humans can do
just as
honey bees can make honey,
and clams can clean water,
and fish can swim and birds can fly.

Why not
for once
retreat
and start with lying down on the belly.
And roll one leg to draw up its knee,
and let everything else respond
and support,
and take it from there.
A simple, somatic lesson in crawling.

Why not find out
– discover –
that we are not born as blanks,
that we don’t have an empty hard drive for a brain and for a soul
on which just about anyone
can write
just about anything.

With a gentle bend of a knee,
and a roll of the pelvis,
and a push with one hand,
and a turn of the head,
we can reconnect, and recollect
meaning,
and love,
and healing.
We might even allow the fish stocks to grow back,
and the honey bees to be just bees,
and the wildlife to have their mountains and plains and rivers and forests.
It might be as simple as that.

Mind To Mind: Undo

Let’s say you’re resting on your back, and you’re holding your right knee with both of your hands.

Let’s change that: let’s say you’re resting on somebody else’s back. For example on Totoro, a very big, loveable, furry, spirit creature out of a famous Japanese animated film. And you’re holding your right knee with your left hand.

Ok, let’s not bring Totoro into this. Rest on your own back. But just for the mental exercise, how does resting on your own back, on the hard floor, feel like compared to resting on a big, benevolent, breathing plush figure?

Once you’re on stable grounds again let’s continue with the questions that shall undo the abuse of thousands of hours of sitting still on school and office chairs alike: how would you pose your right leg to be able to hold your right knee with your hands, in comfort? And how would you pose your left leg, assuming it’s not made from dead driftwood?

And what’s different between holding your right knee with

  • your right hand, 
  • your left hand, 
  • your both hands?

Find three things to observe and describe how each is different in each of the just mentioned three ways of holding your right knee. Or skip this exercise, up to you. However, this exercise will put you mind-to-mind with your own great mind, why miss this precious encounter?

“Reading teaches nothing more important than the state of mind in which you find yourself absolutely alone with the thoughts of another mind, a matchless form of intimate rapport available only to those with the ability to block out distraction and concentrate. Once you trust yourself to go mind-to-mind with great intellects, artists, scientists, warriors, and philosophers, you are finally free. In America, before we had forced schooling, an astonishing range of unlikely people knew reading was like Samson’s locks [..]” – excerpt from John Taylor Gatto, “The Underground History of American Education”

And if I were to ask you to move your right knee, in which direction would you chose to move it first? To the right? To the left? Up closer to your right armpit? Down further away from your chest? Diagonally, like shooting arrows? Will you be shooting from the same position each time?

The lesson continues: circles with the knee, then circles with the foot’s ankle and toes, then circles with the foot and lower leg, then combinations thereof. Then the same with the left leg. Then a roll of the pelvis, a twist of the torso. Things like this. 

And afterwards the hard floor behind your pelvis might feel as soft as Totoro’s wonderful fur. And you might fall in love all over again with the beauty of this Earth, our home.

A new background image

I wanted to add a couple of illustrations to my new poem, the one about the iPad, which actually is a poem about the joy of movement. But then, somehow, the drawings didn’t fit the poem. So I went ahead and made this post.

Oh, and I also drew a carrot:

And a black swan with the head of a snake:

 

Brush strokes

I was holding my new iPad, my first iPad,
the one I got myself for my birthday.
I wanted one since a good decade
but I never knew what for.

But now –I thought– it might cheer me up
in the endless lockdowns.

So I stared blankly at the home screen
and asked myself:
What to do with it? Apart from reading books on it,
what should I do next?

I opened one of the drawing apps
that I got myself from the App Store
because
iPads are fun to draw on,
this much I knew. And I drew a few lines.

I enjoyed the colours, the brushes,
the way my new Apple Pencil 2 glided over the screen.
I enjoyed the lines, the curves,
the shapes that emerged.

I enjoyed how the colours blended together,
or stayed on top of each other,
blue and light blue
and dark blue
and yellow and red.

There’s brushes that look like pencils,
and fountain pens,
and calligraphy brushes,
wet and dry, old and new.
There’s spray paint, and fine lines,
and broad lines, and patterns,
and weird brushes that have funny names like
Honeyeater, Fever, Wedge Tail, Storm Bay.

Then I put my iPad aside and
lay down on my new carpet,
the soft one, the comfy one,
the one I got myself to replace the thin plastic mat.

I lay down on my belly and placed my palms on the carpet,
my right hand next to my right shoulder,
my left hand next to my left shoulder,
then I lifted and turned my head.

I enjoyed how my upper rib cage twisted and turned,
how my upper chest contracted and released,
first on one side, then on the other,
and how my shoulders responded.
Now I was the brush,
and I was the screen.

Like a friend

Yesterday I finished watching David Sedaris’ MasterClass. Bestselling American author David Sedaris teaches humour, where to find meaning, the art of personal storytelling, openings and endings. In fact, of the 14 video lessons spanning 3 hours and 23 minutes he spent a good full hour on re-writing openings and endings. David recommends to learn a few endings by heart. I did my rolls and twists and side-bends, and then he sent me off with a memorable and encouraging ending that he himself had learned by heart. David Walks-His-Talk Sedaris won my heart all over again.

Back to the topic of forced schooling: A lot of bad things can be said about schooling. The deeper I get into John Taylor Gatto’s „The Underground History of American Education”, the more I become aware of the world that has been pulled over our eyes, to blind us from the truth. Neo: What truth? Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo.

I must object. The image painted in the movie The Matrix is simply not true, we are not slaves. Neither are we unenlightened beings living behind a veil, as depicted in some New Age books. Far from it. As I understand it the classical dichotomy between liberty and subordination was our own choosing, and has been written into our collective imagination by Locke and Hobbes. Forced schooling creates standardized thinking and standardized behaviour, which in turn creates a predictable society with a predictable future. The downside is that not every heart can bear it.

John Taylor Gatto writes: „Barbara Whiteside showed me a poem written by a high school senior in Alton, Illinois, two weeks before he committed suicide.” His poem touched me dearly, and since it is otherwise hard to find, I will quote it in its entirety:

He drew… the things inside that needed saying.
Beautiful pictures he kept under his pillow.
When he started school he brought them…
To have along like a friend.
It was funny about school, he sat at a square brown desk
Like all the other square brown desks… and his room
Was a square brown room like all the other rooms, tight
And close and stiff.
He hated to hold the pencil and chalk, his arms stiff
His feet flat on the floor, stiff, the teacher watching
And watching. She told him to wear a tie like
All the other boys, he said he didn’t like them.
She said it didn’t matter what he liked.
After that the class drew.
He drew all yellow.
It was the way he felt about
Morning. The Teacher came and smiled, “What’s this?
Why don’t you draw something like Ken’s drawing?”
After that his mother bought him a tie, and he always
Drew airplanes and rocketships like everyone else.
He was square inside and brown and his hands were stiff.
The things inside that needed saying didn’t need it
Anymore, they had stopped pushing… crushed, stiff
Like everything else.

I set the book aside. This poem speaks of profound clarity at heart. Why did he – or she – commit suicide? Why didn’t he sit through the minimum term, aiming for an early release? Mark Twain, Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman, Steve Jobs, Charles Dickens, Jay Z, Alicia Keys, Tiger Woods and Magic Johnson, Jackie Collins, Brad Pitt, H.G. Wells, Thomas Edison, William Faulkner, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and many others took an early exit on schooling, not on life itself, and lived quite well.

Moreover, this high school senior not only took his own life, but had us all come up short. As great and insightful his poem is, there will be no more from him.

Today is the beginning of the 5th week of the 4th lockdown here in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. All shops are closed, all parks are closed, all big supermarkets are closed. The few coffee shops, small restaurants and grocery stores that are still open are only available for takeaways. There’s rumours that starting this Wednesday there will be a total lockdown of everything, the whole city under quarantine for an additional four weeks.

I found a small pond that has not yet been locked away. I took a picture. Then I set my smartphone aside and watched the wind play with the water lilies.

Yoga Language and the Search for Meaningorpheus

I set out again on Google and DuckDuckGo to find something about writing and movement. Writing not just for the sake of getting across a row of instructions – but writing to inquire about movement, to solve problems of language, communication, and learning. I’m looking for people who have thought of that before. There must be.

After some searching and sifting through scientific articles I found the relatively new field of Contemplative Pedagogy, „A Quiet Revolution in Higher Education”, as Arthur Zajonc put it, a physicist and the author of several books related to science, mind, and spirit, professor emeritus at Amherst College, and former president of the Mind and Life Institute.

However, I was disappointed about the omission of Somatic Education in Zajonc’s list of classroom practices. It only lists practices such as Mindfulness, Concentration Training, Yoga postures, Pranayama, Sitting in Silence, etc, which all have one thing in common: the absence of movement learning – and acquisition – in the sense of Somatic Education.

Considering the „unreformable” nature of the schooling system (to quote John Taylor Gatto) I can’t help but wonder about Arthur Zajonc’s et al attempts to shine some light into the schooling system; their attempts to change it from inside. The schooling system with its „short-answer tests, bells, uniform time blocks, age grading, standardization, and all the rest of the school religion punishing our nation”, to quote John Taylor Gatto again, from his book „The Underground History of American Education: A School Teacher’s Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling”.

Instead of „Contemplative Pedagogy”, wouldn’t „Time Scheduled Focus Drills” have been a more descriptive name? Another brick in the wall? Another attempt at getting students to finally be quiet, fit in, and „shut up”? (to quote John Taylor Gatto’s prologue „Bianca, You Animal, Shut Up!”) Or are we indeed witnessing „A Quiet Revolution in Higher Education”? One might still dare to hope.

In Christy I. Wenger’s book, „Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies: Contemplative Writing Pedagogy”, due to its academic nature, I found plenty of references, and also a single 2-page example of contemplative writing about movement, in „Interchapter Three: The Writer’s Breath”, of all chapter titles. I quote:

„»Alright, everyone knows what to do,« I say. »Be sure to sit up straight in your chair and plant your feet firmly on the ground, letting that connection give you a sense of stability and rootedness, like how you feel in tree pose.« Some students shift with these words, but many remain still, already practicing the attentiveness we’ve been cultivating over the past few weeks. They have learned that being relaxed and being attentive are not separate states but can be coupled for greater awareness, and they are using their bodies to achieve this harmony.” – Christy I. Wenger, from „Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies”

This is an interesting find because it’s not a book written by a movement professional, but by Dr. Christy I. Wenger, „Associate Professor of English, Rhetoric and Composition, Director of Rhetoric and Composition” at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, West Virginia, Department of English and Modern Languages. Therefore, it’s an insight into academia and the state of affairs as of 2015, when this book was published.

Professor Wenger chose to use what I might call „Yoga language”. I have no better name for it, but it seems like most Yoga teachers express themselves like this. It’s a kind of Directive Language, spoken from an expert and authoritative point of view, with very floral metaphors, exaggerations, and claims that would put any vitamins seller to shame if taken at face value.

„Yoga language” might be somewhat the opposite of objective descriptions. To paint a picture: in Realism (arts) we would not „plant” the feet firmly on the ground, and that „connection” would not give you „a sense of stability and rootedness”, considering the facts that the feet bear less than a third of the body’s weight in sitting, and that (in the above quoted exercise) a considerable part of the nervous system would be occupied with trying to wilfully sit up straight. This is not a criticism. I would guess that at the beginning of the 20th century many people welcomed Expressionism, and the appreciation of the individuals’ emotions. Where there is light, there is shadow. And even today such floral language might be the counter-weight to, an escape from, the cold and uncompassionate language of scientific studies on movement, range of motion, and biomechanical functioning.

”Realism, sometimes called naturalism, in the arts is generally the attempt to represent subject matter truthfully, without artificiality and avoiding speculative fiction and supernatural elements.” – Wikipedia, on Realism

„Expressionism is a modernist movement. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists have sought to express the meaning of emotional experience rather than physical reality.” – Wikipedia, on Expressionism

Paintings: 1. Gustave Courbet, 1849, Les casseurs de pierres (The Stone Breakers) 2. Edvard Munch, 1893, The Scream 3. Henri Biva, ca 1905, Matin à Villeneuve (From Waters Edge) 4. Wassily Kandinsky, 1903, The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter)

I would like to be able to quote Wikipedia on „Yoga language”, but there’s no page for that… yet. I do believe that writing about movement, and to put movement learning – and the experiences thereof – into words, could be something of interest to more than just a few; more than just a few out of the 7.9 billion people that move about on planet Earth as of 2021. After all, all of them, each and every one of them, without exception, had to learn how to roll, turn, sit, twist, stand, walk… move in the way they do.

After my movement class

The subtle, surprising, and delicious feeling
of a freshly integrated area,
for example the upper chest
above the part where the thoracic spine meets the lumbar spine.
This can move?
I didn’t know this can move!
This can transmit?
I didn’t know this can transmit!
This can help?
I didn’t know this feeling of support!
It feels wonderful.

A refreshed feeling of trust,
in how everything works together,
the feet with the knees,
the legs with the chest,
the shoulders with the neck.

A refreshed feeling of trust, again,
being present, being aware, being healthy, enough.
I’m doing good. I’m doing well.
I trust in life itself.

A refreshed feeling of emotional security.
Feeling safe, feeling confident.
Right now
nobody is out there to get me.
I am safe. I am loved.
I am complete.

I am breathing freely,
as if a stone was taken off
from a long burdened chest.
The weight was in front,
it was in the back,
it was on both sides,
it was on top and below,
and now it is gone,
replaced with something better.
Now breathing is long,
and calm,
and shallow,
and full,
and nurturing,
and cleansing.
I might just become friends with the wind.

All that is easy to forget.
And easy to restore.