Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dialogue and the Paradox of Experience-based Learning

One of the most foundational quotes about the nature of experience comes from Aldous Huxley's book Texts and Pretexts--"Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you DO with what happens to you." (Or, in the original, "Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him." This concept is touted regularly by experience-based educators as the basis for a "constructivist" understanding of learning. Deep learning occurs, in this view, when you employ something like what is described in the Kolb cycle (see illustration below) as a way to internalize understanding and avoid settling for only superficial knowing.

And there is a great deal of truth, I think, in this formulation. You can try this model out on the latest piece of "deep learning" you have achieved and see if it holds true.

One day I was foraging around in a bookstore in the Hague while on a trip with a Model United Nations group in 1984 and I happened upon a book tucked away in the corner or the shop. The book was a translation of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize speech that he gave in 1970.Solzhenitsyn was a major figure in the intellectual world after his arrest and deportation from the then USSR in 1974. I sat down in the bookstore and began to eagerly read the speech. As I did I came across a line that has continued to be in the back of mind ever since, and certainly throws a deep complication into Huxley's mantra.

Solzhenitsyn wrote, “Perhaps man’s most damaging characteristic is that he can only learn by his own experience, that he allows other people’s experience to pass him by." He then went on to ask, "But is there anything we can do that can overcome that characteristic?"

A great deal of my thinking about teaching and learning has been organized around that idea ever since. Experience-based learning is a paradox--you can only deeply learn through your own experience, but we individually have such a limited experience that there is so little we can learn.

Then, in another bookstore in Albuquerque, New Mexico I came across the ideas of the quantum physicist David Bohm. And while I do not begin to understand the physics parts of what Bohm was talking about, I was immediately drawn to his ideas about his version of "dialogue." The way Bohm defined the concept, it began to look like it might be helpful in addressing the paradox of experience-based learning.

Here is a sample of what Bohm meant by dialogue:

“Dialogue comes from the Greek word dialogos. Logos means “the word,” or in our case we would think of “the meaning of the word.” And dia means ‘through’- it doesn’t mean two. A dialogue can be among any number of people, not just two. Even one person can have a sense of dialogue within himself, if the spirit of dialogue is present. The picture or image that this derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us.This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which will emerge some new understanding. It’s something new, which may not have been the starting point at all. It’s something creative. And this shared meaning is the ‘glue’ or ‘cement’ which holds people and societies together."

What I loved was that this concept of dialogue required a spirit of exploration. And then, in addition, the idea that we are looking for some NEW understanding, not the confirmation of some old understanding that we try to convince others is valid.

But as I looked at my own classroom I realized it was a mess in terms of practicing dialogue. As I began to analyze the kinds of discourse that happened, I realized that people were engaged in conversation, or discussion or debate--but rarely, maybe almost never, in dialogue.

No wonder we generated so little "shared meaning that held us together." So, since I love etymologies, I did a little research. Here is what I found as the origins of those different forms of verbal interaction:

Discourse: "a running about"
Conversation: "turning about with" or "taking turns" (related to keep company with)
Discussion: "to shake apart" (related to concussion or percussion)
Debate: "to beat down" (related to battery, as in assault and battery)

And then, a couple of things became a little clearer. First, my classes were incoherent in part because everyone was in a different mode of discourse. Second, that dialogue rarely happened because we were "taking turns" or "shaking apart" or "beating down." But we were NOT creating a "stream of meaning."

And I realized that one way to take on the experiences of others was to engage in dialogue. In fact, it was even better in some ways--I could help create environments where experiences were collaborative. There was not just my experience, or the other person's experience, there was a "third thing"--the experience that was generated by the coming together in dialogue. And I began to look for this everywhere I could. The best examples of great ideas in teaching and learning are frequently not found in the field of education, and I began to look for "Bohm moments" wherever I could.

Now, click this link ( YOU HAVE TO CLICK THIS LINK; IT WILL MAKE YOUR DAY) and you will see my friends Evita and Michael engaged in a dialogic relationship (the "third thing" is the dance itself) on their way to winning the Big Band Lindy Finals at the Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem this past May. (Enjoy, and remember this is all improvisational dialogue, not memorized choreography. See if you can pick out the spots in the tape where the two of them achieve what Evita calls, "Mojo.")

That, that is what experience-based classes in dialogue would look like, I thought. And so, I continue to search for other examples of dialogue and to think about what the necessary precursors are for creating "Mojo."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Availability: Seeing as Letting Go

The last post was about how truly "seeing" is a matter of staring. In a way, I think of seeing in this manner as a kind of intense "holding on." You become intimate with what you are observing by holding tight to what you see with great perseverance. But, in order to really see in a way that makes you available, I think it is not quite that simple. Instead, seeing, it turns out, is paradoxical.

I remember a long time ago I heard a story from a Native American named Jamake Highwater (a genuinely controversial figure as it turned out, though I was unaware of that at the time.) He told a story about being raised originally as a Blackfoot Indian, but then adopted by an Anglo family. His adopted father was out walking with him in the tidal rivers when suddenly they were surprised by a bird flying out from the brush. Highwater exclaimed, "Meksikatsi!" But his father corrected him by saying, "No, no. That is a duck." For Highwater, his exclamation had meant "pink-colored feet"--which seemed to him to be an accurate description of what he had just seen. The point is this--as soon as I attach language--words--to describe what I see I only see a part of what I am looking at. Highwater saw the bird's feet; his Anglo father saw the bird's actions (see illustrations below).

The whole idea of "seeing" is just so complicated; and yet we know that it is crucial to practicing being available. Pause a moment in your reading and, just for fun, here is a link to one of my favorite set of videos testing out observations skills. See if you can pass the "tests" and then think about what this means for complicating our ideas of "seeing" even more.

But there is another way of seeing that involves NOT naming what you see. My friend Jane gave a book about the creative life of the California artist Robert Irwin entitled, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. The title is a quote from the French poet and philosopher Paul Valery. Language, it turns out, is a prompt that dictates what we see and don't see. It behaves just like the instructions you were given before you watched the video.

If we are to fully be in the present and available to the moment, do we have to forget the name of what we are looking at in order to fully "see" it? In contrast to holding on tightly-- "Stare. Pry, listen, eavesdrop"-- we need to let go lightly of what we think we see.

For me, the person who understands this idea better than anyone is Annie Dillard. I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when it came out my senior year in college and immediately became a convert to a whole new way of looking at the world. In a chapter called "Seeing," Dillard makes a distinction between two different kinds of observation. The first way is very much like the one we described in the previous post--it is about prying, probing, analyzing, naming the thing we see. As she says, "Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won't see it."

But then she explores a different kind of seeing, one that "involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment's light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer." This kind of seeing more like something that comes as a gift, a surprise--it something you can't turn on and off. Perhaps you can prepare to see this way, but you cannot control when it is going to happen. Later in the book, she puts it in a slightly different way, "Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall."

This is a really difficult concept, and I have struggled with it for decades. Here is one way I have come to understand it.

In my own experience as a soccer player, it was similar to holding the tension between imposing one's will on the game and simultaneously letting the game come to you. The first way of seeing the game was "holding on tightly" and analyzing everything that was happening; the second was "letting go lightly" and seeing that the game had a life of its own that I did not control but I could understand if I were patient and listened to what it was saying. I had to stop talking and start listening. There are people who can do that on a genius level in all fields--one is pictured below.

My friends who are musicians, painters, writers, actors describe a similar kind of tension that exists if they are to be fully present and fully available to what was happening in their particular fields. The mystics--East and West--seem to understand this idea as well. If I embrace the paradox of seeing--that you have to simultaneously hold on tightly and let go lightly--then it seems I am more available.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Availability: Seeing as Staring

The last post ended with a reference to John Stilgoe's book Outside Lies Magic, and I want to transition into another investigation of a skill that is crucial to "availability"--seeing. It seems to make sense that if you want to cultivate availability, you need to be able to see the things that are around you for what they truly are. As Stilgoe says, "Explorers quickly learn that exploring means sharpening all the senses, especially sight. Seeing intently means scrutinizing, staring, narrowing they eyes, even putting one's hand across the forehead to shade the eyes on one of the oldest of human gestures." But seeing, it turns out, is a much more complicated than it first appears to be.
In the 1930's Walker Evans surreptitiously took photographs of people on the subways of New York City; he wanted to try and capture people "as they really were." In order to do this he took the photos with a camera hidden in his coat. Many Are Called was unpublished for twenty-five years until a volume of eighty-nine photographs was released in 1966 with an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art as well. As Evans remarked about the photos (which he had withheld from publication because he thought they were so private), "The guard is down and the mask is off. Even more than in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors), people's faces are in naked repose down in the subway."

For Evans, photography was "the art of seeing unblinkingly." But how can you learn how to do that? In the afterword to Many are Called, Evans gave a bit more of a description as to what he meant by seeing "unblinkingly." He wrote, "It's the way to educate your eyes. Stare. Pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long." Still pretty cryptic in some ways, but there are two key pieces in the quote that I think are crucial if you are developing your capacity for "seeing." The first is that seeing involves perseverance; by definition one does not stare for a short period of time. This is not easy to do and you would need specific techniques to achieve this state. There seem to be two major techniques that I tend to utilize--analytic and intuitive. Analytically, we can take something apart and see all its component parts. We can categorize what we are seeing, and explore how the pieces create the whole. The second way is to think intuitively--the see the whole as a whole and attach a metaphor to it. For example, look at this picture:

Now, attach a metaphor to it--does this building remind you of anything else? Does it look like another object you have seen before? Architect Philip Johnson's building in mid-town Manhattan is sometimes referred to as the "Lipstick Building." If you take a group of people to that building and ask them for metaphors that is always one of the ones that is first offered up. (As a sidelight, it is also where Bernie Madoff's company was housed; I don't know if that changes your metaphor or not.)

The second piece of Evan's advice is more surprising to me. I think what he is saying is that it in order to "see" you have to engage in a relationship with the thing you are looking at--"die knowing something."

In the subway photos, Evans' camera was doing the spying, prying, listening and eavesdropping but how do we develop those skills without being surreptitious? One possible answer is to realize that one always sees subjectively, and that idiosyncratic way of seeing is to be embraced and celebrated. As Evans put it one time when he was asked whether he thought it was possible for the camera to lie-- "It almost always does."

"Seeing," in other words, demands commitment and engagement. In order for you to fully see the way Evans is describing you have to be willing to bring your own self to the observation; if you do not do that then you will not be able to fully master that skill. As Evans observed, "leaving aside the mysteries and the inequities of human talent, brains, taste, and reputations, the matter of art in photography may come down to this: it is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing; it is the defining of observation full and felt."

"Observation full and felt"--that may be one of the key techniques in increasing one's ability to see. To truly be available you have to be willing to "die knowing something;" you have to commit.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Availability: Wandering and Wondering

When I first arrived in New York City one of my initial surprises was that I had to re-cast and re-contextualize Walt Whitman. As a New Englander, Whitman, for me, had somehow been lumped in with Emerson and Thoreau; I think I might have even thought he was at Brook Farm. Transcendentalism, in the secondary literature, overwhelms everything else--and nature is seen as the backbone of this idea. But Whitman defies this stereotype by being urban and, in contrast to Thoreau, not a misanthrope. In fact, Whitman loves the city and he loves other people. These facts are important in part because, since 1920, the majority of people have lived in urban areas in America, and because learning how to be "available to the world" is not something one needs to retire to nature to pursue. Whitman, in fact, is the precursor for a slew of fabulous writers--Alfred Kazin (A Walker in the City) and Vivian Gornick (Approaching Eye Level) are two of my favorites--who took the city and its people as the means to finding their place in the world by being available to what was around them.

How do these various people become available? Well, in a phrase, "they wander and they wonder." Listen to the opening lines of one of my favorite poems, Whitman's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,

Flood-tide below me! I watch you face to face;
Clouds of the west! Sun there half an hour high! I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose;
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

So, as Whitman "loafed and invited his soul," (see previous post) what exactly did he do? And can we learn how to do it? Well, first you have to be sensual, tactile and visceral. That is a common thread for Whitman, Kazin and Gornick--they use all their senses, they feel things, and they don't over- intellectualize what is happening around them. That troika is the first step to loafing--sensual, tactile, visceral. Think of it as a mantra for wandering and wondering. (At CITYterm we invite students to lick the Brooklyn Bridge in their investigations - which may be taking things too far from a health point of view.)

I think we can learn to do these things, but we have to focus on them without distraction in order to perfect them--especially in school. It is a kind of "un-learning" you have to do; you have to be in the present with your body as much as your mind. People have a hard time with that sometimes and I have had students who get angry when, for the very first class, they have to go outside and "wander and wonder." When this first occurred I asked one of the students why they were upset. She replied, "I don't wonder. It's not part of my daily routine." (By the end of the semester, though, she was an aficionado and is now a professional designer.)

But go back to the opening lines of the poem--what else does Whitman do in order to "wander and wonder?" His being fully there physically ("face to face") sparks curiosity. Perhaps it is like Dorothy Parker, another wandering New Yorker, put it, "The cure for boredom is curiosity; there is no cure for curiosity." Furthermore, curiosity finds its natural outlet in inquiry and, equally importantly, empathy. The rest of Whitman's poem, and his life, was a series of questions and attempts to feel what other people were feeling--"how curious you are to me!"Curiosity, inquiry, empathy--the eternal irony for teachers in experience-based learning is that you are always "teaching" things that cannot be taught but can, luckily and with some skill, be learned. But that is the second triad that must be mastered in order to increase one's availability.

Many years ago someone sent me a book that is a modern day exploration of "wandering and wondering." John Stilgoe, who teaches the "History of Landscape" at Harvard University, wrote a book called Outside Lies Magic, that is a call to arms to be more fully aware of where we live. But Stilgoe's book is also a call to "availability." He writes in the opening chapter,

"Learning to look around sparks curiosity, encourages serendipity. Amazing connections get made that way; questions are raised--and sometimes answered--that would never be otherwise.

Exploring first awakens the dormant resiliency of youth, the easy willingness to admit to making a wrong turn and going back a block, the comfortable understanding that some explorations take more than an afternoon, the certain knowledge that lots of things in the wide world just down the street make no immediate sense.

Exploration encourages creativity, serendipity, invention."

To become an expert explorer is to learn how to make yourself "available" to the world. And that means practicing how to loaf, to be curious, and to ask questions while you wander and wonder.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Availability: Opening Thoughts

Learning that is transformative in our lives is aided when we are on what Walker Percy calls "the search." What then are the skills, attitudes and dispositions that we could develop to engage that journey at the highest, most meaningful level? In the next few posts, I am going to try to unpack one of those skills--availability.
Over the past decade or so I have become increasingly interested in why some people seem to have things happen to them all the time, and other people don't. Or, more accurately, why are there times in our lives when it feels like the world is speaking to US, and that we are tuned into something that is awesome and exciting and meaningful? And, inversely, why are there times when we feel unfulfilled, not stimulated and in a rut? Finally, are there skills we can practice that would allow our learning to be get into the zone that University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has dubbed "flow?" He describes flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." How might "availability" be a precursor to entering into a state of flow with the world, and how might we come to be more available?

One way that I find helpful to start thinking about something so abstract is to use a technique called the "via negativa." This was something I discovered in graduate school reading Christian mystics who were engaged in apophatic theology. This is some fancy language for trying to define something (in their case, God) by starting with what it is not.

Availability, for example, is not simply being open-minded. They are related, but there is a fine distinction between them that makes a big difference. As is the case with other concepts crucial to experience-based learning, availability demands a concentrated level of activity on the part of the person doing the learning. To be open-minded can be achieved by being passive.; you are simply willing to let new things come to you. To be available is to be engaged with your surroundings and your relationship with them in a dynamic way. You can be open to new things but stay in the same place you have always been, to be available is to search out what is around you and connect with it.

One of my favorite people-- who may be right at the top of the all-time "availability list"--is Walt Whitman. What I have learned from Whitman is how to "loaf." The opening of his epic poem "Song of Myself" begins,

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

We think of loafing as a negative, but, for Whitman, loafing is an art that ultimately allows him to connect with his surroundings. And that is the major difference between openness and availability--connection. Whitman's genius was his capacity to merge and to fuse with his surroundings--both natural and human. What is extraordinary is that he can do it in solitude or in the bustle of New York City. What is paradoxical about loafing is that it allows you to realize that you are both the same and simultaneously distinct from all that is around us. To become an expert at doing that might make one available on a cosmic level, all from a spear of summer grass.

Whitman must have felt that the world truly was speaking to him, and that it was awesome and exciting and meaningful. Talk about "flow" on the highest level! So, I am wondering, who are other examples of people who are "available?"

Friday, August 12, 2011

On "Home" Again...One More Time...for now

Both the Wizard of Oz and Harold and the Purple Crayon end with fervent desires to recognize and remember what it feels like to be at home. Harold is really only able to get back home (or really to re-create a new home) because of something he remembers from the beginning of his adventure--that the moon will give him a context where to find his bed. The emotional power behind both stories derives from the fact that they are parables. I have always found the form of the parable to be particularly powerful because it is not as oppressively didactic as most narrative forms. Allegories (e.g. Animal Farm) or fables (e.g. Aesop's Fables) instruct in a way that there is a one to one correspondence between characters and ideas that operates like an answer to a puzzle.

Parables teach-- but the lesson is one that the reader constructs in conjunction with the story.So, parables are explicitly joint efforts between the story and the reader that can be read over and over again with very different interpretations. With Harold, in particular, there are a lot of possibilities for what the "meaning" of his journey could be. The "moral" of the story is something you create, not something that is told to you. In short, good parables raise questions as much or more than they provide answers.

For example, I think that baseball is a kind of parable--that is why it is the most "literary" of sports with the most written about it.

Quite a few years ago, my friend Buddy and I taught a course called Baseball Literature. We got interested because we were fans, but also because we kept looking at the game and coming up with puzzling questions--Why is it one of only games where only the team without the ball can score? Why is it that it has no time limit? Why is it that you can "fail" as a batter 70% of the time and be on the All-Star team? But the question that always fascinated me was, "Why isn't the last place you run to on the diamond called fourth base? Why is is called "home?"

The objective of baseball, afterall, is to "get home." Why? Well, perhaps it is because we are a nation of immigrants, and, therefore, that is our natural yearning? Perhaps. My interest, however, is what it feels like to be home. My conjecture is that the feeling of being at home is similar to what it feels like to be involved in deep learning. Therefore, it stands to reason that, if we can get clear about what it feels like to be home, then we will gain an insight into what kind of environment we need to create in order for transformative learning to occur.

One of my favorite baseball writers is former Yale University President and Major League Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti. Here is what he wrote in his book Take Time for Paradise:

“‘Home’ is a concept, not a place; it is a state of mind where self-definition starts; it is origins—the mix of time and place and smell and weather wherein one first realizes one is an original, perhaps ‘like’ others, especially those one loves, but discrete, distinct, not to be copied. Home is where one first learned to be separate and it remains in the mind as the one place where reunion, if it ever were to occur, would happen.”

So, I am wondering whether if you can create that feeling that Giamatti describes, then could you defy Thomas Wolfe's dictum, You Can't Go Home Again.

The end of the search--home--would then be much more like what T.S. Eliot envisioned:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Doing that would really be a home run--a walk off home run.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Possibilianism and the Search

This post is a little more complicated than most, and is most fruitful if you have the time to listen to David Eagleman's talk and read Walker Percy's essay (both are worth the time and effort). But I will try and summarize the basic ideas right now in a bit of shorthand. It seems to me that there are an endless number of ways to be on "the search" and, at the same time, we have to try to figure out what short-circuits that effort. The first part of this post is about one person's way of being on the search using science as a method; the second part is about the limitations of that method.

In an earlier blogpost I wrote about Walker Percy's idea of "the search" that is at the heart of his novel, The Moviegoer. And then, someone sent me a link to a PopTech talk that seemed to speak this very issue. David Eagleman, whom I had met earlier in the year at a reading at Pete's Candy Store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is an author and professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine (and former Albuquerque Academy student). He has created a religion called "Possibilianism" which shares with Binx Bolling a desire to be on "the search." AsEagleman says, "I am neither religious nor atheistic." Instead he promotes a kind of reasonable skepticism with a "dose of awe and an emphasis on open discussion." Possibilianism rejects the idea that there one particular religious story we should believe, and embraces the scientific idea that we hold multiple hypotheses in our minds at the same time. Then, as evidence comes in, we could make decisions about what to keep and what to discard. It embraces the DKDK zone, is skeptical of ideas posed in dichotomous formats and encourages divergent thinking--all cornerstones of experience-based learning. And, Eagleman is very funny--laughter being a key sign that some kind of deep learning might be happening.

As I listened to Eagleman's talk, I was brought back to another "scientist"--Walker Percy. Percy did not set out to be a novelist; he wanted to be a doctor. He received his medical degree from Columbia, but then contracted tuberculous while performing an autopsy. After a recuperative stay at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks he became a writer. Percy shares with Eagleman the scientist's temperment, but adds more than a "dose of awe" to his observations about being on "the search."

In an essay entitled "The Loss of the Creature," Percy explores some ideas that inhibit or derail the search. It is also an essay that I re-read each year as the school year begins in order to remind myself that my job is inculcate a spirit of exploration, not of sight-seeing--and just how difficult that challenge is. The appropriate metaphor is always more like being a mid-wife than a tour guide.
Percy starts by describing a Spanish explorer, Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time and is in awe and amazement. That, that precise feeling is what a teacher wants a student to experience in a classroom. But Percy explains that once the Grand Canyon has become a "tourist attraction" to be checked off as an experience (in other words, it is part of the curriculum) the explorer exists no more and has been replaced by the consumer.

Percy goes on to talk about how the students great difficulty is "salvaging [the object of study] from the educational package in which it is presented. The great difficulty is that he is not aware that there is a difficulty; surely, he thinks, in such a fine classroom, with such a fine textbook, the [object of study] must come across! What's wrong with me?"

What does this mean in terms of how we get people to be on the search, to recognize and reject the idea that they are consumers? Percy ends his essay, "It means that the student should know what a fight he has on his hands to rescue the specimen (the object of study) from the educational package. The educator is only partly to blame. For there is nothing the educator can do to provoke for this need in the student (the desire to be an explorer). Everything the educator does only succeeds in becoming, for the student, part of the educational package. The highest role of the educator is the maieutic role of Socrates: to help the student come to himself not as a consumer of experience but as a sovereign individual."

What I am wondering about, as always, is how to get people to see themselves as authors of their own learning, as explorers who are on the search who not only embrace Eagleman's "Possibilianism" but also Percy's understanding of how to subvert the "educational package."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Harold and The Purple Crayon and the Search

For the longest time, I wondered why purple was my favorite color. I figured there must be some reason, and that it was probably unconscious. Remember back to a previous post where Timothy Wilson had posited that "it is not the environment that influences people as much as their constructs of the world--the stories we tell themselves." It seemed reasonable that maybe something in my environment had influenced the way I constructed the world and that "purple" was a short-hand for that.

This past year we were talking in class about why some books seem to "enter us" and forever become part of our pyschic landscape? Think about this for a bit. You probably can come up with some books (or movies) that you have internalized in such a way that they act almost like "goggles" that determine and focus, in part, what you actually see (and don't see) in the present. The books that people come up with-Catcher in the Rye, The Little Prince, Harry Potter, Where Does the Brown Bear Go?-are fascinating and remarkable glimpses into the way people are, or perhaps the way they were when the book "spoke to them."

Vivian Gornick has explored this process of "internalization" in her book, The Situation and the Story. She writes, "Writing enters into us when it gives us information about ourselves we are in need of at the time we are reading. How obvious the thought seems once it has been articulated! As with love, politics, or friendship: readiness is all...The inner life is nourished only if it gets what it needs when it needs it." But what does this have to do with the color purple?

The book that I found myself volunteering in class surprised me because it seemed to come from nowhere. When I was three years old, Crockett Johnson published a picture book Harold and the Purple Crayon. This is one of the books I remember most vividly from my childhood, and I think it may be part of the reason that Walker Percy's comment about "the search" (see previous post) was so striking to me. As you can see in the video (click on the link for a movie version of the story), Harold is on the search in a big way. He sees himself as the author/drawer of his own learning and, as a result, he creates experience after experience.

But the search seems to be something that we are willing to lose, or give up on, or to resolve far too quickly. And, of course, sometimes circumstances conspire to make the search more difficult. I am wondering now what the reasons are for not engaging in the search. What skills, attitudes and dispositions foster being on the search and which ones annihilate or retard it? In the meantime, I try to keep a purple crayon handy at all times.