05 February 2009

Dreams and Real Learning

The weather's turned really cold again. It's supposed to warm up to almost spring-like conditions on Sunday, then return to the chill and gray skies we've been experiencing.

And now I'm awake, late at night, with the cold and my cold. Yes, I should be in bed but I'm not feeling sleepy. I'm not one of those people who falls asleep simply by going to bed. Sometimes I envy those people. But I notice that, it seems, their dreams do not remain with them for even a moment after they wake up. On the other hand, I find that waking up is not always an exit from my dreams, whether or not I want to leave--or, more to the point, realize that I can or can't leave them.

Sometimes my dreams are disturbing. I guess I'm no different from most people that way. At least being jolted or jarred is better than being sad, angry or lonely in one's dreams. Sometimes the scary dreams are a kind of refuge, or at least an escape, when your life is not happy. Having them is better than being sad, angry, lonely or in any way alienated while asleep. I know; I had the same arguments with the same people--all of whom, really, were me--all through my dreams for many, many years. (I think now of the time my mother said she and my father were arguing in her dream.) The only respite was the occasional return to some version of a room or any other place that I could not recall in my waking life. Actually, I returned not so much to the places as to the light of or around them, or at least the light as I could remember it only in those dreams.

It occurs to me now that in my dreams these days--at least the ones I recall--I am not in my past, or at least in any version of it that I can recognize. The good thing about that, of course, is that I don't have to be ruled by the pain I experienced, and the fears that it engendered, from those days, those years, those decades when I had abandoned the hope of living as the person I am. Perhaps there are still lessons to be learned from my past; maybe one day I will return to that process--if I experience the need and learn how to navigate through that process. But--Please indulge me in being trite, just for a moment--there is nothing I can do about the past itself or about anything from it. A few people from those times are in my life now; a few have chosen, at various times (including my transition), to absent themselves from it; still others--many, many more--are simply not here: they or I have moved on, or away. That's to be expected.

Last night's sleep, while only six hours long and ended by a knock at my front window, was particularly restorative. Though I still have the cold, or whatever it is, I feel a lot better than I did at the end of the day yesterday. I wasn't arguing with or raging at anybody; the anger I felt yesterday was, well, in the past. That's not to say that going to the college will suddenly become a more pleasant experience; it's simply one aspect (albeit a large one) of my life now.

I also realize that something I did with my students in the Poetics and Rhetoric of Hip Hop class is having a effect on me. I began that class in an entirely different way from any other I've taught. I asked them to close their eyes and find whatever is the most peaceful place for them--one where they weren't in that crowded subway or that conflict with the boss or spouse, or whatever was agitating them away from their spiritual centers. For about two or three minutes (I also had my eyes closed and wasn't keeping track of the time.), I asked them not to pay attention to anything but their breathing. All they had to do was breathe in and breathe out; all their surroundings had to do was to provide them with that breath. Then, I had them tap a pencil softly when they felt they had completely exhaled.

Then, I asked them to notice whatever rhythms they felt in their bodies: their breathing, of course, but also their blood (if they could feel that), their stomachs, their heartbeats or whatever else might twitch, vibrate, pulse or flow. And, finally, I asked them to hear whatever sounds they could and to feel whatever else might be pulsating or vibrating in that room.

My purpose in doing this exercise was to sensitize them to the rhythms they will hear in the songs and poems we hear and read in the class. You see, I want them to understand how those things work, but not only in an intellectual way. Perhaps some will think it runs counter to the nature and purpose of a college. Maybe they're right. But, at least I'm teaching poetry, if not the way it was meant to be understood, at least in a way that I have come to understand it--a way that is different from how others experience it.

I realize now that in some way, I was reaching out to my students, too. I wanted to be in that classroom with and for them, but not only because it was better than all the stuff I've come to loathe about the school. Rather, I just wanted the opportunity to present--no, not to present anymore, simply to be--my best and most integrated self.

After the class, I couldn't believe how many students wanted to talk to me--and not just about matters pertaining to the class. And I'm also not talking only about personal dilemmas, though a few students mentioned those. A few of them remarked on how much they learned; others talked about songs and other things they love. And, at least two others seemed to want simply to spend a moment with me, face to face.

Finally, as I was about to go home, I bumped into another student in that class: a young woman who took the Intro to Literature course (which everyone in the college is required to take) I taught during my first semester in the college. Back then, I thought she had recently been in prison: She had what I call the Rikers Scowl. But she had never been there, not even for a visit. On the other hand, she struck me as one of the most intelligent students I ever had; my opinion hasn't changed.

Now she's in that Hip-Hop class, and she talked with me about some of her dreams and goals. More important, she told me of some of the things that are important to her: that people be true to themselves and not to "live only for survival." Because she believes in a being higher than ourselves, and that being gave us life, "that's what we're meant to do--live, not merely survive."

And, she said, I helped her to understand those things, although neither of us knew, at the time, what we were doing.

I like to tell people, as they're about to leave on the last day of class, "The course starts now." Either she already knew that or took it to heart.

At least now I have those experiences, not the mere memory of them, for the kind of learning the students and I did doesn't end. On the other hand, all the arrogance, stupidity, pettiness and vindictiveness at the college ends when I leave it. Oh, I may experience other kinds of negativity in other places. But at least it isn't permanent and all-pervasive. And real learning is. I hope I'm giving that to everyone I meet--and to myself.