Undone Business — Chuck Sandy
All this new stuff goes on top / turn it over, turn it over / wait and water down / from the dark bottom / turn it inside out / let it spread through / Sift down even. / Watch it sprout. / A mind like compost. — Gary Snyder
Recently I’ve been thinking about my teachers. I haven’t been remembering. I’ve been learning what they taught me, and learning in ways I never imagined I would. Ideas I heard more than thirty years ago rise from the bottom of my mind and combine with what I’m learning now in new ways.
Perhaps it’s my age. I’m 54 and so it’s natural I should think back. Perhaps it’s the year I’ve lived through as I battled illness, resigned from the university where I’d been a professor for almost 20 years, and helped launch iTDi. Who wouldn’t reflect? Or perhaps it’s the season, the darkening winter days when news could make the darkness darker. Whatever the reason, a lot’s come together this year and made sense as I’ve continued the undone business of becoming the teacher I believe myself to be and am becoming.
One of the teachers who helped me on this journey is Winston Fuller. Although it’s been 35 years since I sat in his poetry workshops, I’ve recently heard him saying: “All teachers teach what they most need to learn” and “it is only by letting go enough to trust ourselves and others that we finally learn who we are.”
This is why I talk and write and give so many presentations about motivation. That’s what’s been most challenging for me recently. Illness and university stress had gotten me so down that it became a long jump up from where I was to where I needed to be. It’s because I needed to figure this out that I began my public conversations about motivation. This need led me to read widely, reflect on my current and past practices, and not only think about Winston Fuller, but to pull out a folder of my work at 21 that included a long typed comment in which Winston wrote:
“As I read your work, I sometimes hear the voice of a guilty man accusing others of sin. We all do that of course. More often than not I find myself teaching in the evening what I have been telling myself in the morning. You might review your work with an eye to seeing how much of what you say to others amounts to a conversation with yourself. All serious people do this. What’s needful to know is that you’re doing it”.
All serious people do this? Winston meant me, and he meant me at 21. As I read his words again, I see him in class, pulling a chair close, looking the gathered students over with a twinkle in his eyes as he begins telling us what’s on his mind. As he talked, he’d weave the poetry we’d written and were learning about into what was going on in his life, the lives of the people he loved, and our lives — as if there was no gap between the classroom and our lives – and of course there wasn’t. He asked questions. He listened. He was entirely present as he talked repeatedly about soul making — by which he meant being a writer, a teacher, and a person who takes life seriously even in the midst of a culture that does not.
“We must take our lives and the lives of others seriously,” Winston said. “If we do not do this for ourselves and others, who will?”
I realize now that Winston talked so much about soul-making because this is what he was teaching himself. It is what I’ve been doing myself this year. It’s why I’m telling you about it now.
Recently I read an essay about how alienation, loneliness, and the lack of community just might be the root cause of the horrifying world news we’ve recently heard about. As I read that essay, I thought of that circle Winston Fuller built for us in his classes, and of the importance that community still holds for me.
Then, I thought about the iTDi community we’ve been building and the work these teachers do as soul-makers — forming a circle and learning together the steps we can take towards healing each other, our students, and this world. This is what gives me hope on this day as my mind turns it all over and watches it rise up, sprout, and stretch out across the seas.
A year ago I did not even know most of the people I am working with now, and yet we have formed this circle of hope that for me goes back to Winston’s class, where we learned what I’m learning now, what I will be continuing to learn, as I hear Winson’s voice read the Charles Olson poem Maxiumus To Himself that ends without conclusion with these lines:
It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
from my feet.