What Must You Lose to Find Kindness?

When I was a child, my mother emphasized the virtue of kindness. I can still hear her soft voice encouraging me to be kind to my siblings or be kind to my friends. But what did kindness look like?

When I was a child, kindness often meant sharing my toys or taking one of my siblings along to the library–when I really wanted to be alone. And what was the benefit? My mother’s smile or even the surprise of a fun adventure with my sibling.

Ann in 1st grade
Ann in 1st grade

It doesn’t take long to see there is a great need for kindness in the world–often on a grand scale. Sometimes we may even feel overwhelmed by the need we see on the news–refugees fleeing from Syria, flood and earthquake victims, the families of drone strike victims. What do our individual acts of kindness mean when stretched onto the world canvas? How can we make a difference?

When we feel overwhelmed by the needs of our communities, often the first response is  shut down, to turn away. If we can just avert our eyes, then we are safe from acting. And then I remember what a friend who works at Baltimore’s Healthcare for the Homeless told me:  “Even if you don’t want to or can’t give a person money, please look at them. Our clients say the worst pain of being homeless is the feeling that they are invisible.”

Digging deeper into my psych after that encounter, I had to admit why it was hard to look into the eyes of people who are homeless: It’s that chilling realization that is could happen to me. And in that moment, I know what I had to do. I resolved that even if I didn’t have money to give or didn’t choose to give money, I could give my attention. I could say “I’m praying for you,” or “God bless you.”  It was in realizing that I, too, could lose something precious that I found a simple way to be kind. It was in realizing my connection that I could reach out.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness” exorts readers to do much the same thing. She starts by saying “Before you know what kindness really is/you must lose things,…”  Enjoy the poem. What do you have to lose?


Before you know what kindness really is
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.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

~from Words Under the Words, Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye

Educating the Teacher: Michael Dickel

I had the pleasure of meeting Michael in Salerno, Italy, last summer when we both participated in the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference.  Michael joined me, along  with Laura Shovan and Debby Rippey, my travel companions, in sharing a gourmet Salerno lunch in a wonderful ristorante.  Michael also served as the emcee for one of our poetry nights. His work speaks of struggle and peace, and he is committed to using the arts for social change. Welcome, Michael.

MIchael Dickel
MIchael Dickel

Does teaching have to contribute to the status quo? Must it be dominated by business models that value efficiency over humanity and greed over compassion? Yes and no. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.

This is my story. It just happened.  And it’s been happening for years.

I’m letting go of teaching. I’m kicking and screaming, hanging on with my fingernails, letting go.

I’m sixty. I’m “outside faculty” (literally translated from the Hebrew, adjunct in plain English). One of my bread-and-butter teaching gigs will evaporate with a just-launched Ministry of Education, free, online, self-study English reading course.

And things are not working so well at a new gig this semester, where an administrator seems to have taken a dislike for me. I don’t want this constant battle in my life anymore, the struggle to make a living doing something I believe should have value.

After three months teaching, a group of us who are “hourly” teachers this semester saw a contract for the first time. It was dated Monday, the 18th of January. It begins three months before, 18th October. And, the contract expires this Friday, the 22nd. Four-days after they presented it to us. That’s, not coincidentally, the last day of classes for the semester.

One of the many problems with this end date is that we had been told to be present at the final exams on Monday, the 25th. Please note, that is after the contract ends. And, in addition to the paragraph that say, “you are hired from this date to that date,” paragraph seven also says something that loosely translates as: to be very clear, after the end date above, you are no longer an employee of the university, unless you are explicitly given an extension in writing. There is no extension of the dates.

This attitude toward those of us who teach is as destructive to education (and, by extension, society) as almost any other force other than war.

I hate having to fight for employment rights, like getting paid. The constant battling leaves me feeling like a failure. I am letting go of this work, which is no longer teaching, but a form of war.

I am hanging on to a lot of anger. I felt it as I left campus today. Boiling under the virus, feeding its fever. I am seething. And I need to find something else to hold on to.

I teach English as a Foreign Language reading comprehension to international students, Israelis, and Palestinians, in a post-high school prep program, called in Hebrew a mechina. (Yes, these students study together in the same classroom.) I love my students. I want to hold on to those marvelous relationships with students we teachers have the honor of sharing with them, where we learn together.

Today was our last regular meeting as a class. As I often do, I invited them to keep in touch—they have my email. Use it, I said. I’m on Facebook, I added. Three have already sent friend requests. Two of them are Palestinian students.

And just before supper, a student sent me an email (uncorrected and shared with permission of the student):

Hi Michael, this is __________, from English.

I want to tell you that you are a awesome teacher. Since the first lesson, I want to stay in your class. When I heard that we have to redo the [placement] exam. It’s my first time that I started to worry about if I can still be in a specific class.

I love the way you teaching, although sometime it is a little bit boring. I still remember that you played guitar and singing with us. And you told us that the purpose of teaching us is teach us how to think, about critical thinking. Since that, I knew that I was in the right class.

This particular student comes from China. He wants to study in Israel. He knows English already, and has been learning Hebrew. He also takes math, history, physics…a full load of prep-courses that has most of the students studying from 8:30 to 5 or later.

What he wrote at the end of his email, I will hold onto forever:

And I mentioned that I have something to share with you, the topic is that the relationship between war and education.

I found that, if a country want to get strong, it must have to good education in the nation. And the way to show others that you are strong, is to show them you have high tech and strong military. I would like to say high tech in some way is for high tech weapons. So who will provide the nation researchers and scientists to make weapons? Education do. 

So in this way. I can say education make this world worse  not better. And it get worse after every year. I believe that one day this world will get destroyed by those weapons and war. So who cause this? Education. 

What do you think about this?

We had a unit on comparative education. The students spent a couple of classes online, looking at websites for places like Summerhill School (Democratic education), reading articles about Tiger Mom’s and Finland’s education system, and listening to TED Talks on the need for more creativity in education.

We did not discuss war, or its connection to education. That came from an amazing student. It didn’t come from me. Yet, providing students a chance to think such thoughts and to ask such questions—that is why I teach. And a successful teacher is someone to whom a student could write: I have something to share with you…What do you think?

I will hang on to the memory of this email. And hanging on to it will allow me to let go of frustrations with the difficulties and unfairness of a system that is stacked against him more than it is me. Hanging on to what matters will help me let go of what doesn’t matter.

It will also help me let go of this form of the work.

I wrote this student a long reply, which allowed me to hang on to what I really value. And, paradoxically perhaps, to let go of the job. The end of what I wrote went something like this:

If education doesn’t ask the questions that need to be asked, or, more importantly, teach how to ask important and critical questions, then you are right, education is part of the problem. It becomes an accomplice, helping to build the structures of dominance and power. Then, it feeds the cycles of greed. All of these things threaten our world today. If education is about training workers and obedience to authority, if it teaches accepted facts and does not challenge students to think for themselves, we are in trouble.

I think that this is one of the reasons why the Humanities are under attack, politically and economically, in much of the world today. It is why many politicians attack education—not because it is failing,” but because it challenges. And why reforms” are regularly introduced that use over-simplified models of manufacturing knowledge,” teaching doctrinal facts (in whatever discipline or doctrine)—serving a purpose of producing workers and even leaders who fit,” but not inspiring thinkers who question.

We need to find ways to inspire students to think—as I see you have been doing—about our world, about how to make it better, about how to find reasonable and well-reasoned approaches to fixing the problems we see and providing a sustainable, healthy, and worthwhile future for our species. 

I don’t have the answers. I hope that we will find the right approaches, or at least, good enough approaches. And I hope that education does not end up only serving the powerful, the military, and the greedy. 

However, it is always about possibilities. We must look for and welcome new possibilities into our lives.

From the Jewish tradition, we have this teaching, too: You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21).

I believe that we can stop the destruction you fear. I hope that we can. May we not desist (stop) from trying. May we continue to seek forms of truth, practice heartfelt communication, and learn compassion for each other. May we cooperate and share with each other solutions as we find them. And may we always look to improving the world, not simply existing, or, worse,using up” the world.

I believe that you could be someone who makes a difference. Start with your questions. And then, look for those possible solutions. That is all I know to say to you as an answer to your question about whether education is causing the destruction of the world. Yes and no. And, it doesn’t have to be this way.

With respect and hope for your generation,

BIOGRAPHY: Michael Dickel, a writer and digital artist, currently lives in (West) Jerusalem, Israel, and teaches in Tel Aviv. He is the chair of the Israel Association of Writers in English. His most recent book is War Surround Us  Rose Press, 2014), available at bookstores and online.

Harmony: A Three-Step Process

Brunswick Bay in Maine
Brunswick Bay in Maine

Have you chosen a word for the year? As I mentioned in my New Year’s blog post, my word for 2016 is harmony. So many thoughts come to mind when I say the word—thoughts usually related to music or to getting along with people in my life. But I’ve also been thinking about how I might harmonize all the elements of my life and am working on some practical steps. Here’s my initial three-step plan to work more harmony into 2016.

1.Follow a routine: I find that my days flow more smoothly when I follow some kind of a routine. But lately my routine of drinking coffee, reading the news, and then meditating is not yielding the results that I would like. I find myself endlessly looping back into websites, browsing articles in newspapers, and even checking my work email. I’m reading the news, but I’m not taking time to read the many books and articles that I routinely set aside “for later.” And I’ve been stuck here for quite awhile. I’m also not writing any new poems right now.

But when I look back on my routine from a few years ago, I see a clear path ahead. I need to tweak my routine just a bit and I think I’ll get out of this morning rut. When I was working revisions for my book, I set aside fifteen minutes a day for writing new poems. During one month I even managed to write a poem a day using my time this way. The beauty of this approach is that I usually spent more the fifteen minutes on my new poems, especially on the days when ideas were flowing. On my off days, and of course I had many of those, I wrote for fifteen minutes and then put the work aside, knowing that even if I was unhappy with the work, I could always revise the next day.

As for enjoying the books and articles I want to read, I can employ a similar approach. A few years ago I managed to read Your Brain at Work by David Rock by committing to 30 minutes a day of reading. Last summer I read Psychiatry Under the Influence by Robert Whitaker by reading for fifteen to twenty minutes every morning. So what’s my next book? I think I’m going to read Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, M.D. I bought the book a few years ago and have been wanting to read it, so now is the time. I’ll let you know what I learn from Play!

Liquid gold
Liquid gold

2.Use a timer to stay focused: When I was growing up, my mother used a timer for everything, and it drove me crazy! I hated hearing that white plastic demon ticking away for how long the dryer needed to run or how long the potatoes needed to bake. I wanted to be a free spirit and not be ruled by some demonic device.

Fast forward to my adult life with many obligations and hobbies. The proverbial so many things, so little time. Now I use a timer, especially for anything that I don’t want to do—clean the house, grade papers, pay bills. I have found the timer incredibly useful in keeping me focused on the task at hand. Sometimes I even manage to finish ahead of time—an added bonus! I find I can usually do a weekly cleaning in about an hour if I stay on track and can pay the bills in about the same amount of time. I use the time on my cell phone which has a nice Zen chime as my timer-tone. What kinds of things can you see doing with the aid of a timer? Decluttering a drawer? Weeding the garden?

3.Write down your goals and ta-das! I like the idea of keeping a success journal with my goals and my record of successes—small and large. I am a regular journal writer, so every day I usually write some kind of goals for the day as well as celebrate my successes, which a former teacher of mine referred to as “ta-das.”

In the spirit of positive thinking, I write my goals as affirmations, which many people say is a better way to communicate with your subconscious. So instead of saying, “I will read for 15 minutes a day,” I leave out the “will” and write the affirmation. There is something about committing those words to paper that seems to make the tasks more manageable, and I find that as I go through the day, I can refer back to those affirmations to keep myself on track.

So what are some things that evoke harmony for you? I’d love to hear your ideas. And if you choose to try my three-step process, let me know of your ta-das!

What You Wish For: Clarinda Harriss

Sixty-some years ago I had to let go of my high school crush on Tom. We were both graduating, me heading up the road to Goucher and he taking off into the wild blue yonder (literally); besides, despite from his unabashed kindness to everybody (quite remarkable in a high school BMOC who was both an athlete and a schoolbook whiz), he had barely noticed me.

Clarinda Harriss
Clarinda Harriss

Actually I didn’t let my crush go altogether. I always inquired about him when our various five- and ten-year reunions rolled around. Via alumni chatter I learned he was a pilot and later that he had a glamorous, globe-encompassing career in the airline industry.   I held onto the idea of at least seeing him again someday, but I let him go again when, to my surprise, he showed up at a reunion—possibly our class’s 30th—with his second wife She was so clever and so lovely (to this day I envy her nose) that I knew Tom was lost to me forever.

Then came the months-long preparations for our class’s 55th reunion. The reunion dinner was to be held at my house, with close to 55 people in attendance. The pre-dinner months brought a frenzy of email. At one point I got utterly fed up with myriad Reply Alls about stuff that concerned only the sender and sendee. I pecked out a message: COULD WE PLEASE STOP HITTING REPLY ALL TO EVERYTHING? RE. THE CURRENT DISCUSSION, PLEASE JUST LOOK AT THE REPLY FROM TOM AND DO WHAT HE SUGGESTED.   But of course that message required me to hit Reply All.   So Tom was among the recipients.

To my huge surprise, he replied—to me only—that he was happy to re-make my acquaintance. In fact, he’d like to head up to Baltimore sometime soon. He had been holding onto the notion of revisiting the town he spent his youth in. Maybe dinner. . .?

Thus a long (time) story became short.   When the reunion dinner actually took place, I was barbecuing for the multitudes on a fancy new outdoor grill, courtesy of Tom.   Shortly thereafter he moved to Baltimore. Within the year I allowed as how it was pretty stupid of him to maintain a Baltimore apartment when he had so far spent a total of two nights there. My house had plenty of room. It was the “Old Manse” I’d lived in with my parents and grandmother when he and I met in high school: a perfect place for me to Live In Sin with someone who was quite literally the man of my dreams. He moved in.

Fast forward, but not very far.   I enjoyed being with Tom. My friends and family did too. I liked developing routines, his running, my writing, our multi-family holiday seasons, discovering our favorite places to eat raw oysters. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that something was very wrong. He was not a heavy drinker and he certainly didn’t do drugs, but he had the sense of time (or rather the absence thereof) commonly associated with potheads. Not much sense of direction, either. Strange indeed for the ex-captain of an industry where space and time were of the essence. Pressed for specifics about his last couple of decades, I discovered that he could barely remember them. Such discoveries slammed me like a runaway truck.   Especially because by this time I no longer had a crush on Tom.   I loved him. And the feeling was mutual.

The first appointment at Johns Hopkins’ memory loss clinic confirmed what had already dawned on me: Tom had Alzheimer’s. Had? Has.   Its grip on Tom was fairly light at first, but it is tightening, tightening.   The Big A is not something that lets a person go  It holds on as a cat holds onto a mouse, playing with it before killing it.

About six months ago I began keeping The Dementia Diary. I started it at the suggestion of a close friend. I’d too often emailed her screens-full of the latest losses of keys, glasses, wallet, the latest finding of the dirty laundry whirling in the dryer. Of all three pairs of lost glasses, crushed to smithereens.   Of being asked a dozen times in as many minutes what we’re doing an hour from now. Of his conflation of the TV remote with the phone. And losing them both. Of the time I freaked out and rolled myself up in the soft kitchen rug, screaming.

Luckily I had the D. Diary to turn to when I got home from an hour at a near-by restaurant lunching with some close women friends to find an ambulance and two police cars in front of the house. Tom had hit the “panic button” on our burglar alarm. Of course it was an accident—he’d been trying to make sure the alarm was off before opening the door for the UPS man—but I think he was, in fact, panicked.   Like many people with Alzheimer’s, he becomes agitated at the unusual, and the most unusual thing of all is for me to be somewhere else.   Those afternoons with “the Ladies Who Lunch” are my once-a-month two hours away. I hold onto them for dear life, as for dear life he holds onto me.

And that is exactly why, though I need to let go of the idea of Tom and me having what could be described as a normal relationship any more, I hold onto him with love, and I do mean romantic love—not just for the charming boy he was when I got that first crush, but for the remarkable man he is now. He remains one of the sweetest, best-looking, most generous-spirited, smartest humans I’ve ever known, despite how hard it has become for him to put his ideas into words. Though his children say he used to be quite impatient, he never makes a fuss when I myself do something dumb, forget something important. I believe he would lay down his life for me.

I understand now why he seems so much more fearful than I am when police helicopters shine search lights into the yards of our leafy, lovely, crime-ridden neighborhood. I used to think it was simply because I’m used to this ‘hood and he isn’t. But no, it’s because he feels he must protect me. I saw this in action last September at three AM when a cat burglar really did creep into our bedroom. Tom leapt for him, yelling threats, cussing like a sailor, and the robber ran like hell with Tom at his heels.

Tom has not let go of what makes him him. I hold him close.

Bio: Clarinda Harriss is a professor emerita of English at Towson University.  For more than four decades she has done several things dear to her heart, and continues to do them:  publish BrickHouse Books, Inc., Maryland’s oldest literary press, and worked with prison writers.   Her most recent book, THE WHITE RAIL (Halfmoon Editions, Atlanta, GA) ,  is a collection of short fiction, not her “real” genre, poetry.  She delights in her two children and five grandchildren.

Happy New Year: Beginning Again

Columbia Lights
Columbia Lights

Happy New Year!  I wish a wonderful 2016 for all of my readers and friends. Many people make resolutions on New Year’s, but I like to choose a word for the year. How does that work?  It’s always a challenge to settle on just one word to guide my year–last year it was “focus,” and I was indeed focused on getting out my first book of poetry. I also use the word of the year to guide my decisions and to keep me centered. But I was really stuck on what word to choose for 2016. At first I was leaning towards the word “intention,” which implies a calm sort of approach to life. But I wasn’t sure that was the word I needed. So I turned to my angel cards.

Word of the Year, 2016
Word of the Year, 2016

Over the years, I’ve used my angel cards for guidance, humor, and the invisible support that angels are thought to provide. I keep my cards in a lovely container on the end table next to the chair where I read in the morning. This morning I chose the word “harmony” as my word for 2016.  It resonated with me, especially because it seems like I am always trying to balance the various aspects of my life–teaching, writing, socializing, volunteering, and reading.  So often I feel out of whack, like one area of my life is getting more of me at the expense of another area.  I’m content with the word harmony and look forward to seeing how I can apply that idea to my life.  How about you? Have you ever chosen a word for the year?

Here’s a poem about beginning again, something the new year always affords us.  Enjoy!


Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of light at the window,
begin to the roar of morning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.

Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.
Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and future
old friends passing though with us still.

Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin,
begin to wonder at unknown faces
at crying birds in the sudden rain
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.

Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

~ Brendan Kennelly ~