Thinking Outside the Box

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Clichés, I love them.  Take one of our current Canadian educational clichés, for example: “We teach you to think outside the box.” I have met many teachers at various levels of education who tell this to me, and to their students.  Yet most of these teachers cannot themselves ‘think outside the box’. What they usually do, when teaching, is shut off the student’s original box by teach them to build a slightly larger one around it. They must now learn to think inside this new box in the way the teacher wants. Hence the cartoon above: We build bigger boxes and Building bigger boxes.

The central motif is, of course, the original ‘tiny’ box outside which the student must be ‘taught‘ to think. For ‘taught‘ substitute one of the following: persuaded, bullied, pressured, beaten, shamed, starved, embarrassed, … depending on the time and place, all of these words are sadly suitable and yes, in my learning career, I suffered at one time or another at the hands of teachers who used each of these methods, and others equally (or more) brutal, sometimes more than one at once.

What was inside that original box? Of course the contents vary with each individual, but creativity is in there, challenging authority is in there, self-belief is in there, a desire to ask endless questions, a childish wisdom to see the world as it is, not as the grown-ups say it is. I ask you, have they really ever grown up, have they ever escaped from their own hand-built boxes? Education: locking down the walls of that original box. Do away with creativity [not that way, this way!], free thinking [you mustn’t say things like that!], challenging  authority [cheeky, disobedient child!], asking questions [little children should be seen and not heard …. silence! … silence in class!] and finally, do away with self-belief and make the child dependent on the teacher [please, Sister Mary … please, Mother Theresa … please Father Maguire …] …

As the walls of the bigger boxes grow thicker and stronger, so it becomes more difficult to once again think as a child. Questions are answered by authority figures or on the internet with answers to FAQs and pre-packaged concepts. How do we regain our creativity? I assure you, we have never lost it. Where is it? Where is it hidden? In this world of folly and rush, of hustle, muscle, and busy bustle, so few of us have the time or can afford to take the time to sit and think, to undo those false walls that surround us, to find again the child-loving pleasure of thinking for ourselves, of discovering for ourselves, of being creative in the ways that we were so very, very long ago. Remember what Picasso said of his later paintings: ‘it took me a long time to relearn how to see the world as a child.’

Creativity: it is always with us. We must rediscover it. We must unwrap it from the tarpaulins that the system placed around it. We must dig it out from under the walls, the ruinous walls, with which the system surrounded us. It is still there, waiting for us to rediscover it. Believe. Roll up your sleeves. Dig deep inside yourself. And think for yourself. Then, when you have found that original box, open it, find exactly what is in it (the universal gifts to the new born), and become creative yet again. Only then will you have taught yourself (yourself, because others won’t teach you) to truly think outside the box, the multiple boxes, that the system and society designed to trap your creative spirit. Open the cage door: , release your creative spirit and let it soar to the skies.

Early Bird

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This is the first painting I ever did on canvas. Kingsbrae held their painting session for children in June 2017, and I joined in with the five and six year olds. It was such wonderful fun. They slapped the paint onto the canvas with unbounded joy. It was hard not to be joyful with them. Many of them expressed curiosity about my painting: “What is it?” then later “What are they saying to each other?” The conversation between bird and worm (or whatever it is) was of incredible importance to them. I thought of it as my “Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet” moment. Now that’s confidence for you.

My strange accent, slowly developing as mid-Atlantic Welsh, with a touch of West Country English and a dab of Upper Canadian and a touch of New Brunswick also fascinated them. “Where are you from?” “Fredericton.” “No. Where are you really from?” “Island View, New Brunswick.” “No. Where were you from before that?” The questions continued until they had ascertained that indeed, I was not a Canadian, a real Canadian, even though I was in Toronto in 1967 to see the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup. 1967: that’s 51 years ago, and I still support the Maple Leafs and I still have my strange overseas accent. “You’re weird,” they told me. “I’ve been in Canada a lot longer than you,” I told them. “Where did you grow up?” They asked. I silenced them with my answer: “I don’t think I have yet.”

Happy paint-splashers, we dabbed on and on in alternating mirth and silence. Some left the table and walked away. Geoff collected our paintings and left them to dry. Later that day, we hung this painting on the wall in the KIRA dining room. It sat there for several days and nobody noticed it. Alas, a hawk-eyed young lady finally spotted it the first night she came over for dinner and “What is that?” she asked, pointing at my painting. Bold and italics combined cannot reproduce the scorn and disdain rolled up in the single word: that. I remember the butler in a country house in Somerset removing with a pair of tongs the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker from the weekend newspapers left on the doorstep. He, too, was very disdainful.

I also remember the tone of an Old Etonian, well he said he was an Old Etonian and had a rasping, high-pitched nasality that made him sound the part. This jolly goof fellow summed me up at a dinner party one night in Toronto when I first came to Canada: “Oh, you’re Welsh.” The grate of his voice was the scrape of a stick removing a dog turd from a shoe. “No,” I said. “Irish, actually.” I used my broadest Welsh accent. “My family is Irish Catholic not Capel Cymraig / Welsh Chapel. Moore is an Irish name. Llewellyn ad Jones are Welsh names. I am not called Llewellyn or Jones.”

And this reminds me of my father, standing in the elevator in a posh hotel in Bordeaux, when three Irishmen walked in. They scanned him for a moment, and then one said, in the broadest of Southern Irish brogues: “T’is the map of Ireland written all over your face.” “Yes,” says my father in his thick, Welsh accent, “I am Irish. But I was born in England.” And that brings me back to my painting. Is it the early bird that catches the worm or the late worm that gets caught by the bird? And which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Ah, the beauty of children. They accept, often without judgement and often without speculation and I love their readiness to befriend the growing child within the old man as he ages. They may not hold doctorates in philosophy, but by golly they are true philosophers in their finest moments. And then of course, they go to school to learn how to behave … and may the good Lord have mercy on them.

Surrealism

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Surrealism
KIRA Retreat Day 4

Only one of the Kingsbrae alpacas could understand and illustrate what we did today. This one showed us so many things. Luckily we smuggled him into the writing classes and the art classes and nobody was any the wiser. In fact he taught one class himself, and one participant served as translator, moving from Spanish to English with almost as much ease as he taught.

He began this morning with a reading that linked Symbolism to Surrealism to Magical Realism. It was a fascinating piece that nobody in the room, myself included, had ever heard before. So, we began with a concrete, literary example, then moved to a theoretical session. The alpaca began by explaining the difference between a lama, an alpaca, and a vicuña. This was extremely interesting, and something we hadn’t considered before. Luckily, these three creatures, two of them mythical (but which two?), do not have-isms attached to them and were therefore much easier to understand.

The lama began the theoretical session by offering some meditation exercises, very peace-giving.  Then he moved into the nitty-gritty of automatic writing. He followed this with some examples of how, rather than copying the automatic writing, we could select prime elements from it. This selection process allows the writer to mine the subconscious while avoiding some of the repetitious nature of the automated pen on the suppliant page.

In all cases, all participants read from their work and the sharing of subconscious inanities was a great way to break any ice that came with the overnight change in the weather.

After lunch, we had a second writing exercise that stretched into two exercises. These were courtesy of a second lama and entailed describing unknown and known objects. One of the participants was very uncooperative and instead of writing words drew pictures in his notebook. This drew comments of ‘Naughty, naughty,” from the lama and that student was given a time out on the golf cart driven round the lawn by the KIRA equivalent of Mad Max.

In our final session, the art lama appeared. He had carefully plucked all the flowers in Kingsbrae and then eaten them. However, in an incredible act of bravery, the ladies present stole some from his hoard and placed them in water cups. The participants then scattered random dots of paint upon a canvas and agreed that, seen from a distance and in the dark, they looked like flowers on a tarmac road under storm clouds on a thundery night when nothing could be seen.

By now, the lama who had been tied to the fishing weir, oh, I forgot to tell you about that, sorry, had been rescued when the Old Sow let the water out of the Passamaquoddy bath tub (aka low tide). Luckily no harm was done and a delicious, fossilized piece of Turkish Delight was shared by the participants all of whom agreed that nothing like this had ever happened to them before, and I believe them.

Mad Max took everyone for a ride on the Golf Cart and we all chased deer round the Kingsbrae Gardens while singing “I’ve been working on the chain gang” and “For it’s a jolly good yellow.”

Green

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Green
KIRA Day 3

Where has the time gone? Don’t answer that question. The Retreat has settled into a structure of its own and outside time no longer has any meaning. The internal time of the retreat runs smoothly as clockwork, a wooden, self-oiling clockwork, of the most delicate kind.

08:00 – 09:00 Breakfast. We gather in the kitchen and the conversations begin over breakfast. We talk about the previous night’s readings, the plans we have for the day, or whether we want to workshop of just retire to our studios and write.

09:00 – 10:30 Workshop time. Each morning we have a topic and we illustrate it and discuss it fully. Each workshop also comes with ideas and prompts for writing. At the end of  each workshop, we plan the rest of the day. We hold regular Blue Pencil Cafés in which facilitators and participants discuss submitted work. We suggested about 20 minutes for the BPCs, but my first one last over an hour and we managed to get through half a poem. Jeremy’s first one lasted an hour and a half (prose) and he covered more ground than me. My second one was marvelous: we spent an hour or more on one paragraph, three lines.

What happens in the BPCs is unbelievable. It’s not just the revision of the poem or the piece of prose, but a wide-ranging discussion on theories, ideas, prompts, the nature of writing, directions a piece may take, the nature of creativity, where inspiration comes from, how it may be channeled, how writing occurs, where it can lead … incredibly exhausting at times, yet energy fills us and we are always ready to write, re-write, revise, and talk again.

14:00 – 16:00 Art School. On Tuesday, Geoff Slater sat us down with paper and paint and we experimented with color, the creation of color, the basics of primary colors, how to make secondary colors, how to create the color wheel. Geoff enthralled us: never will the color wheel ever look the same again. Never will I use a color again without thinking in depth about it’s composition and meaning. Green no longer means Green: it means so much more. I read Lorca’s Romance Sonámbulo, this morning, and it took on all sorts of different and very new meanings. Verde, que te quiero verde. Green, for I love you green … green wind … green branches … green flesh … green hair … 

I sat opposite Geoff this morning. Behind him, green bushes, green trees, green leaves, green grass, green foliage … Yesterday, I paid little attention to all that green-ness. Today it fascinated me and I was able to distinguish between the amount of yellow, the amount of blue, the lightening factor, the darkening factor, the tinges of red and brown and oh to be able to capture it all, all that green-ness, all that certainty, blurred into a sea of green.

16:00 -17:30 BPC time. We pair up facilitator / participant and share our work. Each day a different piece, a different conversation, an advancement of yesterday’s talks, another step or two forward. Sometimes we take tiny steps. Other times we make gigantic leaps. Time and space lose meaning. We have been gifted with something different and we are truly blessed.

18:00 – 19:30 Dinner. This is a sumptuous meal provided by the Garden Café, our very own award-winning Kingsbrae Garden Café. The group is open. The man who provides us with desserts, he makes them in our kitchen, specially for us, joins us as we sit at the table and we add culinary art to the poetry, prose, and painting that we are always discussing.

19:30 – 21:30 Readings. We read what we have written during the day and facilitators and participants share together. I try to choose work of mine that reflects the day’s themes. Linking theory (morning) to practice (evenings) is also a fascinating procedure. We finish the evening by planning the next day’s work. The key to the retreat is flexibility. We respond to each others’ needs. Colors are important? We concentrate on colors and read about them in our evening sessions. Today we talked symbols. Tonight I will offer a reading in which symbols play an enormous role.

Alas: my free time is over. Now I must descend and return to the joys of BPCs, discussion, dinner, and the evening’s read. Farewell for now: I will be back as soon as I can.

 

MT 2-5 Monkey Meets Pontius Parrot

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Monkey
Meets
Pontius Parrot
(With glorious  memories of Macarronic Latin)

 Pontius Parrot is very clever
and very pontifical.
He pontificates from his pulpit.
“Pretty Polly!”

His name isn’t Polly
and he doesn’t have a pulpit
but he parrots words
in Macaronic Latin:

“Caesar adsum jam forte.”

Pontius Parrot is
perky at the podium.
He bounces up and down,
preens himself prettily,
rattles his chains,
shakes his bars:

“Brutus aderat.”

 Shame and scandal
wear him down.
A dysfunctional family
of feathered friends
henpecked him
until he was black and blue
and threw up copiously:

 “Caesar sic in omnibus.”

He dips his wings in holy water,
calls for some soft soap,
and washes
feathers and claws.

Poor Pontius Parrot,
He can only say
“Repent!”

“Brutus sic in at.”

Comment: Anyone who suffered through school Latin, especially if they went to boarding school or grammar school, will recognize famous Macarronic Latin quotes such as the verb bendo, whackere, ouchi, sorebum, and the one the author of Monkey Temple reproduces in the above poem. If you are unfamiliar with Macarroni Latin and have had the good fortune to have avoided both grammar and boarding schools, just read the Latin normally in English and you will establish its Macarronic meaning.

Knowledge

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Knowledge
Thursday Thoughts
9 August 2018

In response to yesterday’s post, The Curse of Cursive, I received this comment.

“I have always blamed my own illegible (except – well sometimes – to me) scribble on the hours sitting in college lectures attempting to make a record of what was being said. Consequently, I could only ever record about every 3rd sentence. Something which I claim accounts for all those gaps in my learning.”

This comment merits a Thursday Thought.

First thought: the whole process of note-taking. One of my professors in Bristol University, where I did my undergraduate degree, was in the habit of sipping Harvey’s Bristol Cream while munching his sandwiches, consequently his post-lunch thoughts were always most enlightening. Here is his post-lunch declaration on knowledge: “Knowledge is that which passes from my notes to your notes without passing through anyone’s head.” This statement was followed by a closing of the drowsy eyes and an enormous hiccup.

For me, the art of note-taking goes way beyond the copying down of another’s ideas. As  note-takers, we must sift the incoming information, break it into salient and important features, and get the main drift of the argument down on the page. And not just the argument, but our own questions and challenges as well. Much of what I was taught at the various schools I attended was, frankly, nonsense. However, I learned a great deal about teaching from those who taught me that nonsense. A dictated note from an early geography class, preserved for ever in the young student’s mind: “The earth is geoidal, ie, earth-shaped.” Good one, teacher. “Please sir, if the earth is earth-shaped, what shape is the moon?” “Don’t be cheeky, boy, I’ll see you afterwards.”

When I received my first important teaching award I realized that it came to me on account of what I had avoided (all those inadequate lectures and lessons) and that what I was doing was engaging students and challenging them to challenge me by developing their own questions and ideas, by doing their own background checks, and by establishing their own thought processes, rather than trying to imitate somebody else’s dictated and regurgitated notes with their partial pictures of (in)complete and often antiquated knowledge, and all this often dredged up and recycled in the form of ancient, dusty scrawlings from pre-historic graduate courses.

I realize that this is unfair to several lecturers I encountered over the years who were able to deliver riveting and thought-provoking adresses. However, these were few, very scarce, and much appreciated. Their names and ideas are engraved on my mind. They and their methods are not forgotten, even now, but, as I say, there weren’t many of them.

As for knowledge, it is so personal and becomes an integral part of who we are and what we do. I know people who received everything they knew about life with their first degrees. They thought they possessed everything, the complete tree of knowledge in one rolled up certificate. Alas, many of them spent their lives never progressing, standing still and contemplating their known world, neither learning nor needing to learn anything else.

Our knowledge is incomplete. If we are at all ‘thinking people’, we know this. We also know we can never get enough knowledge. A PhD is great: knowledge Piled higher and Deeper. But often it is Reinforced Ignorance, the false knowledge that this knowledge is the only knowledge, well, the only knowledge that matters to the individual who, at a substantial living wage, ekes it out with great care and tests other people on their ability to reproduce it in its exactitude. “And I never-ever thought for myself at all” (I am the Monarch of the Sea, the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy, HMS Pinafore).

And here we enter the world of clichés: life-long learning, an everlasting thirst for enlightenment, for more light, more knowledge. The only real knowledge that we simply must transfer to our students, our followers, is how they can gain knowledge and even more knowledge for themselves. A love of and a desire for life-long-learning is the teacher’s greatest gift. If the teacher can pass that on, then the world of ideas will not fail, knowledge will not become carved in stone, set in concrete, entrenched in notes ‘that pass from my notes to your notes without going through anyone’s head’.

Here ends my Thursday Thought. A rant, really, and a very satisfying one. Thank you, Roland of Roland’s Ragbag, for turning on the tap and allowing these refreshing waters to once again flow.

Comment: Opening photo, knowledge set in stone. One of the Bulls of Guisando (Province of Avila, Spain), with graffiti carved by a Roman legion.

Curse of Cursive

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The Curse of Cursive
Wednesday Workshop
8 August 2018

It appears we will no longer teach cursive writing in our schools. Instead, we will teach our children to print. I will not pass judgement on this decision. Quite simply, my handwriting has always been bad. Very bad. I have never worked out why, but I suspect that it is because I think very quickly and my hand tries to keep up with my brain, and the result is the scrawl that I call my handwriting.

I type with two fingers, too, and stare at the keyboard as I am doing so. I tried to follow a typing course one year. I worked at it for two months. At the end of that time, I tried my touch typing examination and managed a rate of 78 words a minute with an accuracy of  82%. I did the same test with my trusted two fingers: 114 words a minute accuracy rate 98%. Oh dear. I still type with two fingers and I still write badly and no, my thoughts have not slowed down.

Just glance through the above photograph, taken from the journal I keep everyday. “Almas de Violeta,” it reads, “an early poetry book by Juan Ramón Jiménez, the Nobel winning poet, was first published in violet ink. I have a copy of his complete works, Obras completas, in which these early poems still appear in purple, or violet rather, to match the color of the title. He published in green ink too, but personally I prefer the purple. Bruised clouds on an evening sky, dark depths of a rainbow glow, Northern Lights singing at the deep end of their scale … or just a desire to be different … slightly different, as if that one thing, the color of my ink, might tip the scales and turn me from mediocre to celebrity with a wave of a violet wand or the click of a pair of ink-stained fingers.”

Now, wasn’t that easy! And there’s so much personality in tone and color, ebb and flow, the link of a poet to the words on his page.

Once, in a faraway library in a distant, magical land, I was studying an autograph manuscript, written by Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645). The hand-writing began very steadily. Then I noticed a red dot or two on the page. Then a larger stain. Our poet was a notorious drinker. The letters grew large and loopy. The paragraphs sprawled. Punctuation marks and accents, slashed and splashed, and missed their targets. By the end of his evening, with his bottle surely empty and gone, I could just about make out what the good man had written.

When I turned the manuscript folio, from recto to verso, it was a new day and the original handwriting was back, small and neat. I have noticed the same phenomenon when I write late at night. Unreadable words, occasional wine splutters, spelling and grammar mistakes, disjointed readability … but the thoughts and the ideas are still there, still clear. Sure, I need a bit of hard work to interpret some things, but that’s the curse of the cursive, I guess.