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.

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