Leadership Without Ego - Part 4: I'm About Ready to Swear

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the fourth in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. Section 3 ended with Steve explaining that right after receiving a “Heroes of Compassion” Award by the Dalai Lama, he was handed a pink slip.

Sarah: What did you do when you got the pink slip from the Department of Corrections?

Steve: To remain at San Quentin, I took a job as the assistant canteen manager. In my position I was mainly responsible for receiving large shipments of ramen soup packages and cereal and shaving cream. The shipments were offloaded in the warehouse. I received them and broke them into smaller deliveries to be taken to the canteen. I also supervised the canteen workers.

It was quite a step down in salary and stature. I went from running my own arts program to running a forklift. I’d grown up as a laborer in a farming area and I’d worked construction, so in some ways the transition wasn’t that difficult for me. But it was quite a blow to my ego. And the staff resented me because they viewed me as this guy who doesn’t know how to do all these things. Plus they were angry because I’d been given the job over one of their peers who wanted it. But eventually I was able to turn it around and get on good terms with the staff.

Sarah: How did you do that?

Steve: I just acknowledged, Hey, I’m here because I lost my position. I talked to the person who had been hoping to get the job and I said, I didn’t try to take your job. In the end we all got along well. I work hard and I have a fairly cheery demeanor. And the staff are really good at what they do. They have high school educations and I have two masters degrees, but they can run the till and balance the register faster than I can.

But it’s not the most fun work. You’re working at the windows where the inmates line up to buy stuff, and you have to tell some guy he doesn’t have enough money to buy something he wants, and now you have an upset customer who happens to be in for murdering someone. Sure, you have a little window between you and him, but on your work break you’re going to have to walk by this guy.

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There’s a funny story from that time. To appreciate it you have to know that I try never to swear. So this inmate was at the window trying to get us to exchange something he had bought. I said, Look, you ran out of money and you know the prison policy—you can’t exchange goods. He kept arguing with me. Finally I said, Goddammit, I already told you, no! Then I said, And now you’ve made me swear! All the other guys in the line started saying, Look, man, come on, you’re making him swear, that’s not cool!

After that, the workers would say, How’s your day going, Steve? And if I was feeling stressed I’d say, I’m about ready to swear. They’d say, Oh boy, Steve’s having a bad day!

During that period of 2010–2012 when I was working in the canteen, I continued working to keep the arts program alive as best I could, including serving as a liaison between the prisoners and the prison staff. Laurie Brooks, who was working for no money, had to step up and take more responsibility for the functioning of the studio. An artist named Carol Newborg was also volunteering to do program management.

Sarah: What kinds of things were you doing as a liaison?

Steve: For example, there would be a conflict over the tool inventory. Not all the tools could be accounted for, which as you can imagine is a big deal in a prison. In situations like these, the studio would go into lockdown. I’d go in and meet with the artists and the inmates and figured out how to remedy it. Then I’d meet with the prison administration and said, Here’s what we’ve done, we’ve fixed it, please allow us to open back up. And they’d say, OK, but moving forward you need to do X or Y.

So I was mostly working in the background but when big things came up like that, I’d step in. That’s still the case now. Something will happen that locks down the art studio and I can negotiate to get it opened up. I try not to misuse my position. But I do mediate when there are conflicts with officers. And not just for the art program, but for all the volunteer programs.

Next: Everyone Everywhere Deserves to Make Art

Leadership Without Ego - Part 3: The Dalai Lama Breaks All the Rules

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the third in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. Section 2 left off with Steve’s description of the difficult period beginning in 2003 when Arts in Corrections was cut by the state government.

Sarah: Wasn’t it during that period that you were honored by the Dalai Lama?

Steve: Yes, that’s right. In 2009, we were still deep in the struggle. Laurie was working for no money, and I was keeping the art program going as a volunteer in addition to my full-time job in the Bridging program that I described earlier. I received a letter informing me I’d been anonymously recommended to receive an “Unsung Heroes of Compassion” award. This is an award granted by the Dalai Lama to 50 people from around the world from Zimbabwe to Thailand to India to Sweden to the US.

When I got that letter, I felt undeserving. The recognition seemed way over the top. I thought, Wait a minute, how can I be put alongside a doctor who does eye surgeries in the mountains of Nepal, or someone who comes up with a way to get money to families in India so they don’t have to sell off their daughters?

But a friend said to me, Just embrace it—someone noticed that you’ve put in 25 years in a place a lot of people are afraid to go into, and they thought that merited recommending you for this. Hearing that really helped me.

The evening before the ceremony, my partner Dana and I were at a dinner hosted by the philanthropist who had funded the whole experience. A Navajo woman who’s a school principal leaned over to me and said, I feel like an imposter. And I realized that a lot of the awardees felt the same way. They were a humble group, many of whom, like me, had stumbled into the work they do.

The day of the awards ceremony, the Dalai Lama’s security staff met with us and gave us all these rules. “You can’t touch him. When it’s your turn to receive your blessing, you’ll walk onstage. He’ll put a white scarf around your neck. He’ll bow. You’ll bow. Then you’ll exit the stage.” But the Dalai Lama breaks all the rules. At the meal before the awards were granted, I was sitting at a table with Dana and my older sister, along with people who’d paid $500 a plate just to be at this event. The Dalai Lama walked in. As he moved through the room, he high-fived Dana, and paused to connect briefly with other people too. It seemed like he could sense who needed a special touch.

 The Dalai Lama gives a low five to Steve's partner, poet and teacher Dana Teen Lomax.

The Dalai Lama gives a low five to Steve's partner, poet and teacher Dana Teen Lomax.

He touched us onstage too. As each awardee walked onstage, Peter Coyote read the person’s name aloud, and when we reached the Dalai Lama, he took our hands. I don’t cry easily, but I was moved to tears. There were a number of traditional Buddhists at the event and for them this was a life-transforming moment, the equivalent of a Catholic person receiving a personal blessing from the Pope. They broke rules right and left—gave the Dalai Lama gifts, hugged him. His security guard was freaking out but the Dalai Lama was fine. You can tell he’s just present for what happens. People talk about that all the time and it’s true. He has a special presence, an amazing aura that’s palpable. He would look very somber and serious one moment, and then laugh the next, totally in touch with his emotions.

 Steve receives the Dalai Lama's blessing.

Steve receives the Dalai Lama's blessing.

It was inspiring to learn about the projects other awardees were doing. There was an American woman named Lynn Poole who worked with Zimbabwean women who sew dolls and make earrings out of coke bottles to support themselves and their children. These are disabled children who are socially ostracized so they especially need support. Lynn Poole’s husband was teaching at an international school in in Zimbabwe. Another expat drove up to them in a truck and said, My visa has expired and I’ve been ordered to leave the country. This is the project; here’s the truck, loaded with materials for the dolls. It’s all yours if you’ll take it on. Lynn stepped up, on the spot. Not only that—over time she expanded the project so the dolls could be sold internationally through fair trade.

After we heard about all these amazing projects, the Dalai Lama gave a speech and said, Look, we’re recognizing you, but your work’s not done. And the work you’re doing now won’t be widely appreciated till way down the road or even after you’re gone. The work is the reward.

Leaving that ceremony, I looked back over the 20 years of my career. I saw that people I’ve worked with have gotten out of prison and are successful. Even though I don’t work in an exotic place, it’s certainly a place where a lot of people would never be willing to work. My job has allowed me to help and support people that needed it.

But at the same time I realized that that award was tied to circumstances I don’t necessarily have control over. I worked at DVI for 10–15 years, but I wouldn’t have gotten that kind of recognition while I was there. San Quentin has a much higher profile. Also, the purpose of the awards ceremony was to get funders and people in positions of power to recognize this work. So I don’t have delusions about how great I am just because I got this award.

The irony is that I received that recognition by the Dalai Lama in 2009, and in 2010, prison education was eliminated statewide, and I was handed a pink slip. My friends said, Too bad about the Dalai Lama award—it jinxed you!

Section 4: I’m About Ready to Swear

Leadership Without Ego - Part 2: The Kids Melted Under That Praise

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the second in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. In Section 1, we left off with Steve explaining that after running the Tehachapi Prison arts program, he transitioned to a position at Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy, CA.

Steve: When I went to DVI I got involved with the William James Association.

 Steve with DVI arts program alumni Dennis Cookes and Robert Vincent at a conference on arts in the prisons.

Steve with DVI arts program alumni Dennis Cookes and Robert Vincent at a conference on arts in the prisons.

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Sarah: Tell me about William James.

Steve: It’s a nonprofit that contracts with the Department of Corrections to place artist teachers in prisons in Northern California. William James screens and places the artists and ensures that they get paid in timely way. I’d let the William James staff know what kinds of artists I needed, and they’d do the matchmaking. I developed a close working relationship with the executive director, Laurie Brooks—which proved important strategically later on. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I ran DVI’s art program through most of 90s. The program was already in place when I got there, in a very nice studio space set up by artist Bobby Altman. We offered woodworking (I taught that class), guitar making, ceramics, painting and drawing, and music. The program was hugely successful. We had a core group of inmates who were dedicated artists, and because of that we were able to raise ten grand a year through art sales, and give visibility to the artwork. We contributed all the proceeds to the Child Abuse Prevention Council of San Juaquin Valley.

I still have a close connection with a lot of those guys, many of whom are out now. They’re off parole, citizens with good jobs who are still making art. One big success story is Vincent, who learned to make guitars at DVI. He’s been out 15 or 20 years now, and he makes high-end classical guitars for a living. His son is also an artist and has become a prison arts teacher.

 DVI arts program alumnus Robert Vincent with a guitar he made.

DVI arts program alumnus Robert Vincent with a guitar he made.

Around 1998, I was feeling burnt out at DVI and wanted to try something different. I took a position at the Youth Authority in Stockton. I coordinated programs in six juvenile facilities for young people aged 14–26. I found that work a lot more heart wrenching than working with adults. At that young age, you really can’t argue that these kids are locked up through any fault of their own. The staff were more encouraging than at the adult prisons but the environment was still draconian. Officers, barbed wire fences. And kids are harder to deal with in those environments. Fistfights would erupt.

 Wards and painting instructor working on a mural at Youth Authority.

Wards and painting instructor working on a mural at Youth Authority.

The worst moment for me was one time in a paper marbling workshop. One kid was trying to become a big shot in one of the gangs. I saw him order two other kids to clean up his area. I said, No, everyone cleans up his own area. He started to walk away from me. I grabbed his shoulder. He whipped around and said, Don’t ever touch me again—you don’t know what might happen. He was the kind of kid who could have played that up, because there’s a rule against touching the kids. The art teacher called in officers and they dealt with him. At that moment I realized, OK, I don’t have the patience that’s required to work in this environment.

Working with juveniles wasn’t the only aspect of that job I didn’t click with. I’d gone from managing my own program to managing programs in six different places. There are always problems that crop up when you’re bringing people inside—for example, the artist doesn’t have the proper paperwork or messes up a protocol. Previously, when I was running my own program, I had credibility among the staff, so I knew who to call to resolve an issue. But in this situation a lot of my work was by phone. So I couldn’t be as effective.

 Wards making books.

Wards making books.

Sarah: Were there any heartening moments there?

 Steve, book artist Beth Thielen, and wards in bookbinding workshop.

Steve, book artist Beth Thielen, and wards in bookbinding workshop.

Definitely. I remember a bookbinding workshop where the instructor had the kids making these very complicated books. They were really into it. We had photos posted of them holding their completed books—they were so proud. Others would see the pictures and say, Hey, that looks really cool! The kids melted under that praise. They were so starved for positive attention and feedback.

We had a unit for kids with mental dysfunction. I wanted to place this older woman artist in there as a grandmother figure. At first the administration resisted because they thought the kids would act out. But eventually we were able to get her in there. This one kid was especially dysfunctional—he’d refuse to bathe, spread feces all over his cell. We got him into this class. The staff would tell him, You really need to watch it this week because she’s coming on Saturday and you want to get out to go to your class! He totally improved his behavior.

 Steve and Beth admiring a ward's work on a book project as another ward looks on.

Steve and Beth admiring a ward's work on a book project as another ward looks on.

 Wards proudly displaying elaborate handmade journals.

Wards proudly displaying elaborate handmade journals.

The Youth Authority staff started realizing that instead of this program being an impediment, it could really help them. They started picking out the kids with the worst problems to send to art class. And other juvenile facilities started requesting art programs.

 Youth Authority artist teachers with Laurie Brooks (third from left).

Youth Authority artist teachers with Laurie Brooks (third from left).

But even though I saw lots of positive things happen there, I still wanted to go back to working with adults. And my family wanted to move closer to the hub of the Bay Area. So in 2003, I took a job running the arts program at San Quentin. The person who’d been running that program had moved into an education position at the prison.

That program was very successful as well. But right when I got there, the Department of Corrections eliminated their contracts with William James and another nonprofit that provided the same service for Southern California prisons. Soon after that, my own position was moved under the prison education department. I lost a lot of independence. I was assigned to a program called Bridging, which serves inmates in the reception center. The reception center holds guys in the process of transitioning from county jail to prisons all over the state. Until this point the Department of Corrections had not provided programs for that population. So the Bridging program was an attempt to remedy that. I set up drawing, poetry, origami, and collage classes. These were short-term classes because the guys were shipped off to other prisons after six weeks or so. One of the challenges of that job was that the inmates were assigned to these classes, whereas in the past, I’d only worked with guys who volunteered to take art classes. So it meant I was working with students who didn’t necessarily want to be in class.

William James executive director Laurie Brooks and I started strategizing about how to keep prison arts programming alive. Laurie and Jack Bowers, a retired artist facilitator, testified before the state legislature. But that work didn’t bear fruit right away. We survived in those years on small grants from nonprofits.

 Laurie Brooks, Alma Robinson, and Jack Bowers presenting at a conference on arts in the prisons.

Laurie Brooks, Alma Robinson, and Jack Bowers presenting at a conference on arts in the prisons.

Next installment: The Dalai Lama Breaks All the Rules

Leadership Without Ego - Part 1: The Workshop Was Neutral Territory

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the first in a six-part series of posts featuring an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system.

Sarah: Tell me about your work.

Steve: Currently I oversee all the volunteer programs at San Quentin Prison. My office is in charge of reviewing background checks on volunteers. I also manage the program schedule, coordinate with inmate groups’ schedules, review proposals for new programs, and recommend proposals to the warden for approval. Inmates can pitch proposals, but most pitches come from outside groups.

Now, thanks to the passage of Prop 57 last fall, the Department of Corrections gives rehabilitation achievement credits. Prisoners who participate in volunteer programs that pass approval by Corrections are eligible to get time off their sentences. That’s added a whole level of data entry to track attendance and calculate time spent in those programs. I’m the final reviewer, so each time an inmate earns enough hours to have a week off, I’m the final button.

I’m also responsible for big events, such as performances by outside groups, or events organized by inmates like the Breast Cancer Walk or the annual Day of Peace.

 Inmates and supporters on the 2017 Breast Cancer Walk at San Quentin.

Inmates and supporters on the 2017 Breast Cancer Walk at San Quentin.

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 Steve with Associate Warden Steve Allbritton at the Breast Cancer Walk.

Steve with Associate Warden Steve Allbritton at the Breast Cancer Walk.

Sarah: What does that entail?

Steve: A group submits a proposal, which at San Quentin is called a narrative. For example, the narrative submitted by an inmate group called "San Quentin Cares" said something like, We all have mothers, relatives, and friends with breast cancer and we want to support the cause by doing a walkathon; inmates can contribute money to participate, and people on the outside can contribute via a designated link on the official Breast Cancer Walk website. Or another example of a narrative is the one inmates submitted for the Day of Peace. That one said something like, We want to have a day on the yard that encourages everyone to get along across gang affiliations, religious faiths, and so forth; we want outside people to perform music; we want a treat provided for every inmate.

 2018 Day of Peace banner painted by participants in the Arts in Corrections program

2018 Day of Peace banner painted by participants in the Arts in Corrections program

 Day of Peace committee members and set-up crew.

Day of Peace committee members and set-up crew.

 
 Chalk drawing competition.

Chalk drawing competition.

 Day of Peace performance by members of Bread and Roses. Guitarist Kurt Huget teaches guitar playing at San Quentin.

Day of Peace performance by members of Bread and Roses. Guitarist Kurt Huget teaches guitar playing at San Quentin.

I review the narrative to make sure it’s realistic based on any number of factors, for example when the prison opens and closes. It all has to jibe. I clean it up and then it goes up several levels of the administrative hierarchy till it reaches the warden. I work in a system that’s paramilitary.

Sarah: Does the prison system consciously emulate the military?

Steve: Yes. The correctional officer, who’s in there with the inmates, is like a soldier. Next comes the sergeant, who oversees a team of correctional officers in a given location in the prison. The lieutenant oversees a whole cellblock, and the captain manages several cellblocks. Above the captains are the associate warden, the chief deputy warden, and the warden.

 Steve at his MFA solo show in 1986.

Steve at his MFA solo show in 1986.

Sarah: How long have you been in this current position?

Steve: Five years.

Sarah: How long have you worked in the prison system?

Steve: This is my twenty-eighth year.

Sarah: How did you get into this work?

Steve: After getting my MFA in fine woodworking in 1986, I got a yearlong teaching position in a community college in Ridgecrest, in the desert, off Highway 395. The college serves military personnel and their families from the nearby army base. When my contract was about to run out, the local Kern County arts council contacted me about setting up an arts program in a nearby prison. Prison arts programs were on the rise, thanks to the visionary work of Eloise Smith, the first executive director of the California Arts Council, which was started during Jerry Brown’s first governorship. She responded to requests from inmates to set up an arts program and then she helped it expand throughout the state. It became a full-fledged program called Arts in Corrections, funded by the California Department of Corrections.

 Steve's MFA solo show.

Steve's MFA solo show.

When I was first approached to work for Arts in Corrections, I said no. My view at that time was that inmates were in prison because they had done terrible things, and they belonged in there. I wanted to stay on the college-teaching track. But like so many MFA grads, I had a whole file of rejection letters. So when I got another call from the council, I went to the interview—and was hired a week later.

That first prison job was at Tehachapi, not far from Bakersfield. I was given a room in the prison. I started teaching drawing, and I brought in other artists to teach other media.

Sarah: What was it like to segue from teaching college students to teaching inmates?

Steve: I found that the inmates were much more dedicated and interesting to work with than the college students I’d been teaching. In prison, you’re working with people who have bottomed out. They latch onto art as avenue of expression and a way to have a different, more positive identity—the Artist.

Eloise had felt from the beginning that inmates would be more receptive to learning from high-level artists than from art therapists who come in with the agenda of getting the inmates to talk about their feelings. A lot of inmates resist the touchy-feely approach—“Oh, I was terrible, I robbed this bank.” The Department of Corrections didn’t want outside artists coming in—they didn’t think artists would be able to handle all the security procedures. But Eloise said it would work. She argued that if inmates were taught art by gifted artists, their engagement with the artistic process would lead them to investigate their own character and be able to contribute better to the community. That’s what finally sold it with the department. And as soon as I started working at Tehachapi, I saw the wisdom of Eloise’s approach.

Sarah: Can you give me an example of the positive impact of this approach on inmates?

Steve: I had a ceramics instructor teaching a group of guys how to throw on the pottery wheel. This inmate, a very awkward, nerdy guy, tall and lanky with thick, scraggly hair, would stand in front during the instructor’s demonstrations, blocking the other inmates’ view. He couldn’t grasp the technique and he was getting really frustrated. The instructor said, “Sit down, breathe, feel your body. We’re each going to make a bowl. Now you’re going to follow exactly what I do. Pull up the clay as slowly as an ant crawling up the side of the bowl.” And so on. Well that day that inmate finally was able to make a hollow form. It was thick and ugly, but it was a hollow form. And the next week, he showed up with a haircut and stood in back of the group so everyone could see. Later I followed up by reinforcing what he was already figuring out—“Yeah, you have to be aware of how you’re impacting the people around you.”

 Inmate throwing a pot.

Inmate throwing a pot.

Not that that always happens. But experiences like that hooked me. I felt like I could really help make a difference. Guys would be worried if I didn’t show up. They’d say, “If something happens to you, we’ll never have this class again.” “You can’t just take a week off—we need this class.” I’d never had that experience at the college. There, the students were taking five classes, participating in various clubs—they were spread so thin. But inmates are in a monastic situation. In a cell, there’s time to reflect and think about what they’re going to make. If they get this opportunity to make art, they can focus on it. If they’re into writing, then they’re writing all the time. The guys in the Shakespeare class are walking around the yard practicing their lines in British accents.

Sarah: Were you welcomed by the prison staff?

Steve: Hardly! At the time I was hired at Tehachapi, the mission for corrections was only to keep inmates housed safely. There was no mission to teach them, beyond helping them get a high school diploma. My first day on the job, the warden called me in and said, “I didn’t want this program. Keep your house in order. If I see anything out of line, you’re out of here.” They thought a teacher who was already working in the prison would have been a better bet security-wise. But just a week later, my direct supervisor told me, “I didn’t want to hire you. But I’ve been watching you—you’re all right.” He told me, “That lady [Eloise Smith] wouldn’t stop pushing her agenda for us to hire an artist for this job. She waited us out.”

Bit by bit, the prison staff came around. The warden and officers would walk by the art workshop and see rival gang members communicating, black and white guys sitting next to each other. The workshop was neutral territory.

Sarah: When I first met you, you were working at Deuel Vocational Institute (DVI), a medium-security prison in Tracy.

Steve: That was my second prison job. I left Tehachapi and went to DVI in 1989. I wanted to get closer to San Francisco and Northern California. Tehachapi in an arid and politically conservative region. I prefer Northern California’s landscape and culture.

Next installment: The Kids Melted Under That Praise

The Alchemy of Service - Part 5: Watch Out, Someone's Behind You

Sarah: Tell me about your current job—it has a long, fancy title.

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Joann: Yeah, it’s a mouthful: Program and Organizational Effectiveness Director at the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford. My role involves assessing the impact of Stanford’s public service and civic engagement programs for students. The work involves data analysis, identifying what’s working well and what can be improved.

S: How do you go about doing that?

J: We collect data through different surveys that ask questions like, “How satisfied were you with this experience? What skills or insights did you gain? How has this impacted your career or academic trajectory?” In addition, we may conduct focus groups, immediately after the students’ engagements end or a number of years later. We have also started looking at trend data.

Stanford has gone through a major shift in how we contextualize service programs. Thirty-plus years ago, Stanford’s President Don Kennedy recognized the value of a life in public service and initiated efforts to better understand the different ways students engage in service at Stanford.  This process revealed the need for greater institutional support. Without that intention, university administrations and students can lose sight of the value of service. Ultimately, the university established Stanford’s Public Service Center in 1985. Since then, we’ve always offered service opportunities at varying levels including fellowships for domestic and international placements where students work with community organizations or engage in public service that links theories learned in class with practical application in the community.

Two years ago, just after I came on board, the university launched an initiative that ramps up its already strong commitment to infusing service into all aspects of an undergraduate education.

The Cardinal Service Initiative has four components. Cardinal Quarter is an immersive, nine-week public service experience at an organization for at least 35 hours a week. There are funds available to support students to participate regardless of their financial situation. I collaborated with colleagues to develop a survey to identify areas of the program that work well and areas that need improvement, in order to understand which aspects provide a really meaningful experience for the students and the community partners.

Cardinal Courses integrates service learning into an academic setting and links students with hands-on service opportunities with community organizations. Also, students who meet certain criteria can apply for a Cardinal Service notation on their transcript. The university’s support and approval to incorporate this notation on students’ transcripts is a major milestone in acknowledging the importance and value of students engaging in public service.

Cardinal Careers provides advising and other programmatic elements that strive to link students with opportunities to explore work in the public interest either as a primary job or in a volunteer capacity. And Cardinal Commitment, the newest component, addresses the fact that many students are already doing service in a regular way, for example tutoring youth on a weekly basis or working on an advocacy or social issue, like the environment and climate change. Through Cardinal Commitment, we’re recognizing that contribution.

We hope incoming students will choose Stanford because service is an integral part of the University’s culture and Cardinal Service has been infused in our admissions and outreach materials.

 Jo and colleagues

Jo and colleagues

 The Haas Center for Public Service

The Haas Center for Public Service

S: How’s it been being back at your alma mater in this new capacity?

J: As an undergrad, my home at Stanford was the Haas Center. So it’s amazing to be working there now.

But as much as I love Stanford and the Haas Center, it’s not always easy being in a bastion of privilege. There are times I wonder if I might have a greater impact in helping others by returning to work with a community organization. The past two years since Trump was elected, I’ve been heartbroken and shocked to see that privilege and entitlement runs deeper than most well-intentioned white people are even aware of. The racism my parents had to endure is stronger than ever. Sometimes I tell colleagues I’m scared I’m going to become this angry person of color who shuts down and can’t listen. Yesterday I was at Whole Foods, buying a honeydew melon. Good Chinese shopper that I am, I was searching for the best fruit. I spotted one at the bottom of the pile so I was carefully stacking all the other melons to one side. Someone behind me said, Watch out, someone’s behind you. This woman was hovering. As soon as I uncovered the melon I wanted, she reached and took it. I said, Oh, I was going to take that one. She looked at me and turned and walked away with the fruit. I wanted to say something nasty to her about being an entitled white being. I’ve never wanted to say something like that in the past. Then I reminded myself, Jo, it’s a melon!

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By the way, if my dad had been in my situation, he would have cussed her out! Butchers swear a lot. My brother points out that my father always spoke English with a Chinese accent—except when he swore.

S: How’s it going with work-life balance?

J: I’m back to full-time work. But I’ve gotten better at setting clear boundaries. I’ve learned to say no when I feel I need to and am more direct with requests regarding my needs as they’re aligned with my principles and values. Faith now plays a significant part in the way I view my work. I see what I do as ultimately God’s plan, so I’m not as invested in trying to control things as I was in the past.

S: When you say faith, do you mean Christian faith? Do you consider yourself a Christian?

J: Over time, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching and reconnecting with my spirituality. I identify as Christian; I believe in Christ. This is a whole other conversation, but I have issues with Christians who use their faith to push their agenda, particularly political agendas. That’s not what it’s about for me. My perspectives are influenced by how my piano teacher carried herself as a Christian and how she treated others. I’m aware that my time here is temporary, and I view the gifts, opportunities and challenges in my life as part of a plan I can’t even understand. I go to church, and Fred and I are united in wanting to have a home that’s based in faith.

S: You mentioned to me in a recent email that you’re mentoring a group of Stanford students. What’s one thing you want them to know?

J: Embrace change—recognize the importance of flexibility and fluidity, even if it makes you uncomfortable. And know that things really do work out. If someone had asked me 20 years ago whether I’d be working at Stanford now, I would have said, No way! I live by the mantra, Follow your passion. Hone in on what sparks joy and excitement—what you feel a connection to. Don’t be afraid to explore it; develop experiences that honor it. Whenever I’ve tried to work just for money, I didn’t enjoy it. Work has always been far more fulfilling to me if it brought me joy and provided me with a meaningful way to contribute and support others. That’s when I’ve thrived and done my best.

The Alchemy of Service - Part 4: Fireworks and Tears

S: What drew you to work on domestic violence?

I knew of cases of domestic violence in my own community growing up. In one case I even knew of a death that resulted from domestic violence. Over time I recognized that this was a real issue in the Asian American community—as in so many other communities. I felt called to address it.

S: Tell me what happened after grad school.

J: I’d been planning on working on the international stage but my thinking was shifting. I saw a lot of Asian Americans going into medicine, engineering, law—not so much public health. Yet there was a huge need, domestically. I witnessed this close to home—my dad’s sister was a garment worker who never learned English; access to health care was an issue for her family. So when I finished grad school I got a job working as a development director at a San Jose organization that serves Asian Americans. I later became director of their programs that oversaw a range of services including programs for seniors, youth, and survivors of domestic violence. It was great way to apply my public health background, but there was a disconnect between what I wanted to do and some of organizational dynamics of the agency. I ended up leaving, without another position lined up.

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Amazingly, right after that happened, a job opened up at Asian Health Services. It was the same position I’d applied for earlier, and they asked me to come in for an interview but by that time I had already accepted a position at the San Jose organization. This second time around, though, the timing was perfect! I was hired to work for Asian Health Services and stayed there 13 years.

S: Why did you leave?

It was a very tough decision. I had thought I’d continue working there till retirement and really loved the people I worked with. But there was a transition in leadership and I wasn’t totally aligned with the values of the new team. As I mentioned earlier, I’d always been raised by my parents to stick to my values and principles—especially living with integrity. So I felt I had to leave.

I knew my mom would be ecstatic at the news, because she always felt I worked too hard and wasn’t treated very well. My long hours had taken a toll on her, too, because I depended on her a lot for child care. On Mother’s Day we took her out for dim sum and I gave her a box with the question, “Guess what?” on the outside.  When she opened the box, an image of balloons, stars, and a party hat greeted her along with the messages, “I quit my job!!!” and “Happy Mother’s Day!”  She looked at me, her eyes brightened, the tears fell. She thought I’d finally made the decision to put family first.

 

 Goofing around post-quitting.

Goofing around post-quitting.

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But as it turned out, I didn’t even stop working! Someone from another health care organization immediately asked me to work with them as a consultant. I realized I wanted to remain connected to community and service; I couldn’t just stay at home. So I consulted for this organization for the next year and a half.

S: That was your last job before you went to work at Stanford, is that right?

 Doing consulting is way less stress ... time for a sewing class! Cozy PJ pants for the kids.

Doing consulting is way less stress ... time for a sewing class! Cozy PJ pants for the kids.

J: Almost. I had one more job at another health center in the Bay Area before returning to Stanford.  But I felt an increasing desire to leave health care and work on program evaluation again. I had coffee with someone I knew at the Haas Center and I asked, do you have any needs that I can help out with? She tried to connect me with folks she knew in the health care field and I told her I was actually interested in doing more work with data analysis and program evaluation. She said, Funny you say you’re interested in this area because we may have a position opening up for evaluation in the future. I started volunteering there, and in that same period I interviewed for a curriculum development job at a health center in the Bay Area. The health center offered me the job. I told them, I’ll need to work part-time so I can attend to my kids and to my mom, who has health issues. I’d always put the job first and I was clear that that needed to change. I also told them, Being honest is important to me so I want to let you know that there may be a job opportunity that comes up at Stanford that I am interested in; if this job comes through at Stanford, I will apply for it. They hired me anyway, at a high salary.

That experience showed me the importance of going into a job interview with clarity and resolve. You need to able to say, “This is what’s important to me and if that doesn’t fit with your needs, so be it." Be willing to walk away.

And then six months later, the job came up at Stanford. I applied and was hired in October 2014.

Next Installment: Watch Out, Someone’s Behind You

The Alchemy of Service - Part 3: Joann Wong! You Are Chinese!

Part 2 of our interview ended with Jo mentioning a six-week trip to China shortly after graduation that changed her relationship to her roots.

S: What had been your relationship to being Chinese American up to that point?

 The Beijing YWCA.

The Beijing YWCA.

J: As an adolescent, I fought it. My mom would speak to me in Chinese and I’d say, I’m an American, we should speak English. My mom would lay into me: “Joann Wong! You are Chinese! You look Chinese! When people look at you they see Chinese!” I’d look at her like, OK, whatever, I just don’t want you to yell at me any more. I didn’t get it—what can I say, I was a stupid teenager.

S: What effect did this awakening during the China trip have on you?

J: It was pivotal. When I returned to the States, I was determined to work in the Asian community.

At the YWCA I’d had a chance to work on program evaluation and I’d really liked it. Putting that together with my experience in China, I was inspired by the idea of going back to school to study public health, in particular international health, with a view toward doing program evaluation.

I got into Boston University’s public health school and deferred so I could spend a year in Asia. My idea was to find an NGO where I could work on HIV issues while studying Chinese. A program called Volunteers in Asia placed me in Taipei because China wasn’t open about HIV issues—this was 1993.

I had an uncle who lived just outside Taipei, a half brother of my dad’s from his father’s earlier marriage. I didn’t know him; I’d only learned as an adult that he even existed. The idea of developing our relationship was an added draw.

 Receiving a training certificate from Living With Hope

Receiving a training certificate from Living With Hope

 Attending a conference in Taipei

Attending a conference in Taipei

In Taipei, I spent mornings studying Chinese and evenings teaching English. In my free time I volunteered at an NGO called Living with Hope, which supported families living with HIV/AIDS. Taiwan was a decade or so behind San Francisco in terms of the fear and misinformation flying around. One of my best friends at the NGO was an activist/organizer named Zhang Wei. Inspired by him and other staff there, I went to my first gay rights protest. I’d been such a goody-goody growing up; I’d never protested before. But somehow in Taipei it made sense to me. Zhang Wei said, You’re weird—you support these things that in our culture are so taboo and stigmatized.

When I came back to the US to attend grad school I experienced an intense case of reverse culture shock. I realized how big and loud Americans are compared to life in Taipei. And Boston was another new environment. But I embraced it. When I’d gotten into school in Boston, I thought, I wonder why God is sending me to Boston. And you know how that turned out—I met Fred there!

 Volunteering for the Names Project in Washington, D.C. with partner Fred (left), Fred's brother-in-law (my brother) David, and David's daughter Arielle.

Volunteering for the Names Project in Washington, D.C. with partner Fred (left), Fred's brother-in-law (my brother) David, and David's daughter Arielle.

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Much  of my grad school work focused on the connection between HIV infection and domestic violence. In 1996 I volunteered as a Logistics Chair with the Names Project to help with their display of the entire AIDS memorial quilt in Washington, D.C. I was on my feet twelve to fourteen hours a day for the duration of the display. I’ve never been as exhausted as I was then. I remember being in tears by the end of one day because my feet hurt so much; as a grad student living on the cheap, I didn’t buy more comfortable shoes! But somehow the incredible love, compassion and support from thousands of people who came to see the panels carried me through. I also volunteered with the Multicultural AIDS Coalition in Boston and with a shelter for survivors of domestic violence—one of the first in the country tailored to Asian women’s issues.

 

 

Next installment: Fireworks and Tears

The Alchemy of Service - Part 2: Mom, It's Only a Nickel

 Jo as a toddler with her parents and older brother.

Jo as a toddler with her parents and older brother.

S: You went to Stanford as an undergrad. What did you major in?

J: I started out pre-med but realized at some point that I wanted to explore other options in health care. I ended up majoring in Human Biology with a concentration in Child and Adolescent Development.

S: What had initially drawn you to medicine?

 1977—Jo (far right) with her brother, cousins, and maternal grandmother.

1977—Jo (far right) with her brother, cousins, and maternal grandmother.

J: When I was ten, my mom’s brother got a rare form of cancer. I was really close with his kids—we spent summers together. We watched my uncle deteriorate and die. My mom played a big role in caring for my uncle and she was really important to my cousins, because our families spent a great deal of time together. Being so close to someone with terminal illness impacted me. Also my dad really loved kids, and that rubbed off on me. When I went to college, I thought I’d be a pediatric oncologist. I volunteered at a camp for kids living with cancer. I loved the kids but the fact that they were so sick was hard on me. And academically, while I was inspired by science, I didn’t excel at it. I didn’t do well in the famous freshman weed-out course, Chem 31.

I thought, That’s fine, if I don’t become a doctor, I could…. I couldn’t finish the sentence. That scared me more than giving up my plans of going into medicine. A doctor I had been shadowing said, what matters most is following your passion. So I asked myself, What sparks passion and excitement in me? I knew I wanted to stay in health care but I realized I was more called to the service side.

 14-year-old Jo and her family.

14-year-old Jo and her family.

 1987—Jo with her maternal grandmother, parents, and brother.

1987—Jo with her maternal grandmother, parents, and brother.

S: That ties back to what you alluded to earlier, that your family’s emphasis on supporting the family somehow translated in your mind to supporting others far beyond the family unit.

J: Yes. I was also very inspired by the example of my piano teacher. She had a strong Christian faith. She was patient, loving, and devoted to helping others. Interestingly, I was surrounded by Christianity as a child—the uncle who died was a pastor—but my parents kept Christianity at bay. My mother felt that the gossip at church didn’t model Christian values. And my dad thought all Christians were crooks because he knew there were these wealthy televangelists cheating people out of their money. As an adult, though, I identify as a Christian.

S: When you first graduated you worked on HIV issues, is that right? What led you to that arena?

J: I was a product of ’70s and ’80s, and the HIV epidemic was a fact of life. I was drawn to the social justice aspect of the disease as well as the compassion I felt for people being discriminated against because of their illness. I’d learned from my parents to stick up for my principles, fight against discrimination. Once when I was 12, my mom and I were in a parking lot and some white guy shouted at her, Why don’t you go back to your own country?

 With other undergrads, Halloween 1988.

With other undergrads, Halloween 1988.

 Graduation Day, with Stanford President Donald Kennedy.

Graduation Day, with Stanford President Donald Kennedy.

My mom said, Why don’t you go back to your own country because the only people who belong here are the Native Americans! (Actually she said “Indians.”) I thought, Here’s this supposedly docile Asian wife who cooks and cleans and drives her kids around, being such a bad-ass!

I do have to say sometimes it goes too far. Once we were coming out of Safeway and she looked at her change and realized she’d been short-changed by a nickel. She started marching back into the store. I said, Mom, it’s only a nickel, let it go. She started lecturing. “Joann Wong! This is about the principle!” I always know I’m in trouble when she uses my whole name.

S: Tell me about the work you did in HIV.

 All grown up.

All grown up.

J: Right out of college I received a fellowship to intern at the State Department of Education in Sacramento. I worked on a program called “Healthy Kids, Healthy California,” doing a literature review of HIV curricula being taught in schools.

After that I got a job teaching HIV prevention education to middle and high school students in Santa Clara County through the Mid-Peninsula YWCA in Palo Alto. That position helped me understand women’s and diversity issues more. I had phenomenal role models there—including my boss, Kay Philips, the executive director—who were working to empower women and eliminate racism. They were strong; they spoke up. 

When a development director position became open at the YWCA, I applied for it. I was up against a woman who was maybe 15 years older, but I got the job. I was given intensive training in fund development, communications, and media relations. I saw that the people who hired me were walking the talk of empowering women of color.

In that period I took a six-week trip to China with my family. I got a deeper understanding than I’d ever had of what it means to be Chinese American.

Next installment: Joann Wong! You Are Chinese!

The Alchemy of Service - Part 1: Mouse Soup

I’ve always known that my brother’s wife brother’s wife, Joann Wong, had a cool career. But when we’re in the same room, it’s usually for a family gathering—we’re too busy dishing up food to have a real conversation. Recently I invited her to talk with me about her work. Her vivid storytelling riveted me. And I learned how, by expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, she fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the first of five installments of that conversation.

Sarah: How did you first get enamored of service?

Joann: I always wanted to serve others. I’m a first-generation Chinese-American, the product of immigrants who lived through food-shortages and war, and sought something better for their children. I learned from my culture and my family how important it was to support the family unit. But somehow in my mind, “family” expanded to “world.”

S: Tell me about your parents’ experience.

 Joann's mother, grandmother, and maternal uncle in Macau.

Joann's mother, grandmother, and maternal uncle in Macau.

J: My mom was born in Macau, a small Portuguese territory. During World War II, Macau was initially a neutral area. Refugees from China flooded the tiny island, leading to food shortages and appalling living conditions. Then the Japanese took power. My mom tells stories of how people lined up for rice rations every day. After they left the line, they’d discover that under a top layer of rice the servers had filled the bowls with sand. Early in her life, my mom became sick and lacked proper nutrition. She was so malnourished she lost all her hair. Her grandmother cooked a soup made of mice—so my mother would get the nourishment she needed to grow her hair back. Her grandmother insisted on using field mice, because they’re cleaner than street mice.

My dad was born in Hawaii when it was a US territory. My grandfather had come from China to California where he found work building railroads. Later he went to Kauai, where he worked for the Wilcox family at what is now called the Grove Farm Homestead, as kitchen staff, and he and my grandmother started a family. One day, when my dad was around four years old, my grandfather had his palm read and was told, “You’re going to die in the next five years.” When he heard this, he told his family that he wanted to die in his homeland. So my grandfather packed up the family and moved everyone back to China. My grandfather lived another ten years. My dad emphatically advised us, “Don’t ever believe palm readers!”

Once back in China, my father and his parents lived in a village area called Hoi Ping, outside of Guangzhou. My dad told me less about their living conditions and more about what his father was like. My grandfather was extremely strict, and corporal punishment was typically the discipline of choice. When my grandfather got home from work, if his slippers were not properly set out, someone got hit. If family members talked during dinner, someone got hit.

When my father was 14, my grandfather died from what my dad thinks may have been a heart attack. This was during World War II, when the Japanese attacked China. My father remembers being chased through the fields by a Japanese soldier as a teen. My grandmother was a tough, sturdy woman. She’d walk for miles carrying two buckets of salt slung on each end of a stick that she balanced across her shoulders. She’d walk to the edge of the main road where she could sell the salt, and then walk back home at the end of the day. That’s how she sustained her four children.

S: As immigrants to the US after the war, what work did your parents find here?

 Photo from a Kauai newspaper article describing the return of Joann's father, 黃均 森 (Kwan Sun Wong, aka Sam) and other Americans who were repatriated to the US from China after World War II. Joann's father is on the right.

Photo from a Kauai newspaper article describing the return of Joann's father, 黃均 森 (Kwan Sun Wong, aka Sam) and other Americans who were repatriated to the US from China after World War II. Joann's father is on the right.

J: While living in China, my dad’s family stayed in contact with the Wilcox family in Hawaii. When the war ended, one of the Wilcox family members wrote to my Uncle George and advised him and my dad to go to the US Embassy in Guangzhou to try to return to the US since both my uncle and father are American citizens. Ultimately, my dad and his brother returned to Hawaii on a US military ship that was coming back from Guangzhou. They worked for the Wilcox family on Kauai. My dad was a gardener for Sam Wilcox. Sensing more employment opportunities might exist on the mainland, my dad moved to San Francisco. In the Bay Area, he ultimately became a butcher. He dealt with a lot of racism on the job; he was called “Chinaman” and “Chink.” He had to put up a front, act like it was all fine. Ironically, my father’s youngest brother died serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War—we’re a Gold Star family!

 Joann's mother 陳玉簫 (Yook Siu, aka Marion) at California Beauty School on Market Street in San Francisco.

Joann's mother 陳玉簫 (Yook Siu, aka Marion) at California Beauty School on Market Street in San Francisco.

My mom came to the US at the age of 16 and did well in school, particularly in math. She enjoyed tinkering with mechanisms and figuring out how things work. She wanted to study to be an engineer but didn’t have enough money to pay for a college education. Instead she took classes at a trade school and became a beautician. She worked in a beauty shop at JCPenney for a little over a year, then opened a salon with two other business partners. My mom also experienced her share of discrimination, including a time when one of her clients exclaimed how hearing my mom speak in Cantonese to another customer at the salon gave the client a headache. She asked my mom to stop speaking Cantonese.

 Joann's mother (second from right) during her stint at JCPenney in San Francisco.

Joann's mother (second from right) during her stint at JCPenney in San Francisco.

 Joann in her paternal grandmother's lap.

Joann in her paternal grandmother's lap.

Anyway, as a result of my parents' struggles, they encouraged us to work hard, always do our best, stay committed to our family, and get a good education. My father would say, "Don't end up in a situation where others can boss you around. Be your own boss." As a kid, I didn't have many chores; I was expected to focus on my education. When I would offer to help, my mom would say, "No, you go and study."

Next Installment:                             Mom, It's Only a Nickel

Back to the Garden - Part 4: Mountain Lion Footprints on the Deck

This is the last in a four-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with the poet Hazel White, about the twenty-year process of writing her book Vigilance Is No Orchard, forthcoming from Nightboat Books. Scroll down for Parts 1–3.

Eighteen Years of Defeat Is a Strange Space

[When we left off with Hazel's story in Part 3 below, she had revised her manuscript yet again and sent it—yet again—to Stephen Motika at Nightboat.] He wrote back after some time. He didn’t like the changes. But he didn’t out-and-out reject the work.

Six months went by. One day I pulled out the manuscript again. I cut a third of the quotes and embedded the remainder more carefully in the manuscript. I sent it back to Stephen and wrote something like, “I’m not certain that I’ve fixed anything. If you could let me know your decision by Sunday I’d appreciate it. If the answer is no, I completely understand.” I almost wanted a rejection. There were many times during the whole process when I wondered if I were mentally ill.  Eighteen years of defeat is a strange space.

Stephen wrote back and said he loved the rewrite. He had a lot of praise for it. But he also didn’t come right out and say he’d publish it.

I went to Brooklyn in the fall of 2016 and met him for breakfast. I was grateful that he had spent so much time on my manuscript and I was also nervous he might still be thinking it wasn’t done yet. I said hesitantly, Stephen, is it yes or no? He said, Yes. He said, Sorry, in my feedback I’ve been harsh on you. I said, That’s true. We laughed. He knows a lot about landscape architecture and admires Isabelle’s work, so he cared about this book. I’m of course very grateful now.

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Mountain Lion Footprints on the Deck

I’ve thought a lot about why this project took twenty years. I’ve come to understand that as an English person, I wasn’t writing about a Southern California landscape from the perspective of someone raised here. I had to take up habitation in a foreign aesthetic. It’s very hard to have lost one’s original place. It’s even harder to write about that. Yet I felt I might never encounter a more mysterious or necessary subject. So what choice did I have? I had to address that desperate resettling.

I also think I was jealous of Isabelle’s power as an exquisitely intuitive maker. I wanted to write as powerfully as she created gardens. The project became finish-able when I realized I would always fail to fully get the experience on the page; that instead, I needed to allow the failure to enter the work, become part of it.

A third challenge to completing the work was my guilt that I was making an experimental poetry book, not the gloriously successful coffee table book Isabelle and I had originally envisioned.

But about six years ago I realized Isabelle wasn’t holding a grudge. Around that time she arranged for me to stay in the guest house at the garden she had created for Lillian Lovelace. The Lovelace garden features a pool with boulders in it, set under oaks, with a teahouse at its edge. It’s that placement of the human-made lines and the wild lines I described earlier, that reduces me to a noodle. I stayed in the teahouse for three days and nights. I swam in the ocean and in mountain creeks. I slept with the door open and in the mornings there were mountain-lion footprints on the deck. I wrote several poems.

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Isabelle always knew I was more of a writer than I knew. She told me early on to stop calling myself a garden writer. She said I was an artist and a real thinker. By the time the book was finished, she had come to see me as being more true to myself as an artist than perhaps she’d been to her artist self during that time. So in the end, she’s glad it ended up how it did.

And so am I.

Back to the Garden - Part 3: "You're a Good Egg—Happy Easter"

This is the third in a four-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with the poet Hazel White, about the twenty-year process of writing her book Vigilance Is No Orchard, forthcoming from Nightboat Books. Scroll down for Parts 1 and 2.

Put the Relationship on the Page

In 2005, at California College of the Arts, the main feedback on my attempts to write about Isabelle and the garden was that my text lacked any sense of our relationship. I showed ten pages to the poet Leslie Scalapino. She hated it and spent an hour telling me in detail what was wrong with it. I agreed.

I joined a writing group and everyone said, We think you should put your relationship with Isabelle on the page.

Years later, when I had 60 pages written, I worked with the poet Rusty Morrison privately for a few sessions. She had a lot of critique. The title had the word shelter in it, but she wasn’t buying that the book was really about shelter. She thought that that word, that concept, was a safe placeholder. She said something about how the image of the garden “owned me and disowned me.” She encouraged me to take more risks with the whole manuscript.

I had thought it was almost done, so I was a bit shocked. And scared about taking those risks. I went to England. After a few months I gathered up the courage to read through all of Rusty’s written comments. Her observations felt completely right. But what she was suggesting—writing about what wasn’t sheltering me, of being lost over and over again in that image—seemed impossible. I realized that right from the beginning I’d clung to the topic of shelter because it was something I felt confident about and comfortable with. Rusty said, Take it out.

I needed to let everything go and write the messiness, make myself more lost!

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I produced another version. I put everything I had into it. I met with Rusty again and this time she seemed to think I’d succeeded, or done well enough.

So I sent it out to poetry competitions. It was a finalist for both the Fence Books Ottoline Prize, chosen by Brenda Hillman, and the National Poetry Series. It seemed only a matter of time, I prayed, before it would be picked up by a publisher. I hoped I was done.

You’re a Good Egg—Happy Easter

Feeling more confident than I had in years, I sent the manuscript to Nightboat Books. The publisher, Stephen Motika, read it and said, I’m interested in your relationship with Isabelle and I don’t see it on the page.

I honestly didn’t think I could do anything more about it. I came to a grinding halt.

One day several months into my despair, I felt a different kind of energy—a little cocky, a little devil-may-care. I walked to the filing cabinet and took out a file overflowing with correspondence from Isabelle to me. Birthday cards, holiday cards, notes I had saved. With a kind of weird, wild boldness I thought, I’ll give them this relationship. Flipping through the file I started writing things like, “You’re a Good Egg—Happy Easter.”

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I should mention that during these years I’d become a close friend of Isabelle’s, in spite of the fact that I’d failed to publish a book about her and the garden I was so obsessed with. She’d gotten married—in that same garden. I’d attended the wedding, even helped her dress for the ceremony. In my maniacal writing fit, I included details about how I helped her that day with her corset and shoes. I produced about eight pages of quotes and inserted them into the manuscript.

I sent it off to Stephen. I was just waiting for him to reject it.

Next Installment: Mountain Lion Footprints on the Deck

 

 

Back to the Garden - Part 2: "A Pretty Big Failure"

This is the second in a four-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with the poet Hazel White, about the twenty-year process of writing her book Vigilance Is No Orchard, forthcoming from Nightboat Books. Scroll down for Part 1.

A Pretty Big Failure

Isabelle had a show at the UC Santa Barbara Art Museum. I wrote a catalog essay for it. A publisher of some note came to the show, became wildly interested in her work, and wanted to publish a series of books on her. Later, I had a verbal contract with the publisher to write one of the books, but due to an economic downturn in publishing, the project fell through.

 Hazel with Isabelle Greene

Hazel with Isabelle Greene

 Exhibit catalog for Isabelle's show at the UC Santa Barbara Art Museum

Exhibit catalog for Isabelle's show at the UC Santa Barbara Art Museum

At another point, my partner agreed I could take a year off from earning income to write a book about Isabelle. At the end of the year, with nothing much written and feeling miserable, I got brave and contacted the top agent for landscape books in New York—office on 5th Avenue, the works. She was interested but thought Isabelle wasn’t sufficiently well known to warrant an entire book just about her. The agent wanted me to write a book about Isabelle and another landscape architect. I turned her down; it didn’t feel possible to compromise. I’m sure she was very surprised.

Then I decided that in order to write the book I needed to attend a Master of Fine Arts writing program. I got into the MFA program at California College of the Arts. At the end of the first semester, a professor told me that she didn’t think I could write the book about Isabelle’s garden for probably five years. I went home and cried.

By the second semester, my writing had broken down completely. I could no longer write a linear sentence. Friends were telling me I should drop the book idea. It was looking like a pretty big failure. I suppose the breakdown in sentences was related to my emotional state. Something had to break.

At that point I took a course called “Hybrid Forms” taught by the poet Kathleen Fraser. Being a good girl and following her directions, I produced these short condensed pieces in response to her exercise prompts. She called them poems. I was terrified—I didn’t want them to be called poems. I couldn’t face my inability to write sentences anymore. I made a valiant attempt to get the hell out of this huge discomfort and transfer to the Visual and Critical Studies program, but wasn’t able to.

I had grown up in a working-class family. I’d argued my way to college based on the expectation that I’d make money. So writing poetry felt like a crisis. Yet I could no longer write anything else.

 Hazel as a child (Hazel's on the right)

Hazel as a child (Hazel's on the right)

 Hazel as a teen, on a farm in the southwest of England, where she grew up

Hazel as a teen, on a farm in the southwest of England, where she grew up

A couple years after receiving my MFA, I wrote my first poetry book, Peril as Architectural Enrichment, in the space of about four months. It was published by Kelsey Street Press in 2011. It dealt with landscape architecture—but wasn’t about Isabelle and her garden. I felt guilty. I had accrued 70 hours of interviews with Isabelle yet I had been unable to produce anything out of all that material.

Next Installment: You're a Good EggHappy Easter

 

Back to the Garden - Part 1: "Aesthetic Shock"

This is the first in a four-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with the poet Hazel White, about the twenty-year process of writing her book Vigilance Is No Orchard, forthcoming from Nightboat Books. It’s a story of intense commitment to carrying out a creative vision no matter how challenging the process.

Aesthetic Shock

I started out as a freelance writer, writing primarily about landscape architecture and gardening. I have loved poetry since childhood, but I always had this thought running through my head: “Poetry is the hardest thing in the world; I’m going nowhere near it.”

One day twenty years ago, I turned a page in a magazine and saw a photograph of an amazing garden. It was an aesthetic shock. I felt physically jolted. I knew instantaneously that I would do whatever was required to stand in that garden.

I had long believed that our most essential experience of place or space is about shelter and view. Now I think the maker of the garden, landscape architect Isabelle Greene, had triggered my almost paranormal experience through an exquisite manipulation of those two elements. The garden sits in a tight canyon; a series of freeform terraces step down the hill.

I thought that if I could just stand in that garden, I would understand it.

 The Valentine Garden, designed by landscape architect Isabelle Greene

The Valentine Garden, designed by landscape architect Isabelle Greene

Within 24 hours I’d called Isabelle Greene at her Santa Barbara office. Too shy to say, “I’ve had an aesthetic shock,” I presented myself as a garden writer and explained that I was writing books for Chronicle Books on garden design and used that as an excuse to ask if I could come see her work.

She asked why I was writing gardening books. I said I wanted to teach ordinary gardeners what professional landscape architects know about space. I’d taken a lot of landscape architecture classes at UC Berkeley Extension and had read a lot about  the philosophy of space. She said she didn’t think this was something that could be taught. And she wasn’t compelled enough by my story to meet me or let me see the famous garden she had made for Carol Valentine, in Montecito.

Years later, when I told her the truth, she said, My god, if you’d just said so, I would have gotten you into that garden immediately. So I had shot myself in the foot by not being honest.

Access to the Garden

Each year for the next four years, while I was writing other books in the Chronicle garden design series, I called her assistant and asked if I could come down and see some gardens and maybe meet with Isabelle. I was always told, “She’s busy, but you’re welcome to come see some of her work.”

In Year Four, I called the assistant as usual. This time I suggested that if Isabelle had a favorite restaurant, I’d be happy to take her to dinner. That approach broke through! I went down there and we met for dinner. Within five minutes we were talking about line and form and whose work we loved. It was immediately obvious that we were both crazy about landscape.

 Hazel White

Hazel White

She explained to me that the inspiration for the Valentine garden—her most famous creation—came from aerial views of the California landscape. She was particularly interested in the straight lines of fields and how they get interrupted by a creek or a river or foothills. She was interested in that meeting of a strong, human-made line against a natural line. The garden photograph I’d seen had the most extraordinary resonance with aerial photos of landscapes. But in the view in the photograph, you’re actually only looking down thirty feet. Isabelle had manipulated the scale such that the viewer sees terraces that are large in themselves, but are a miniaturization of the much larger landscape you’d see from a plane.

She finally arranged for me to see the garden.

All those years, I had been confident that once I was standing there I would know the particular power of that garden. I thought back then that I could pretty much understand and write about any landscape architecture using a set of concepts I’d become familiar with. I had been quite successful doing so, getting my work published in the London Telegraph Sunday magazine and so on.

Standing in the garden, I felt a strange alertness, a fizziness in my nervous system—yet I couldn’t figure out what was producing the effect. It would be a long time before I was capable of writing anything sufficient about this garden.

Next installment: "A Pretty Big Failure"

 

Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 3: Real Love

In my last post I argued that focusing on self-esteem is an unhelpful approach to feeling good. I leaned heavily on the ideas of Kristin Neff in that post and will in this one too. Neff combines insights gained from meditation retreats with her background as a research psychologist to investigate and share the benefits of self-compassion. Her book on the subject offers a clear distinction between self-compassion and self-esteem, one that I think can be of tremendous service in helping people better support their own and others’ well-being.

 Shifting our paradigm from self-esteem to self-compassion isn't a day's work. But like Gertrude Stein, we can begin, again and again.

Shifting our paradigm from self-esteem to self-compassion isn't a day's work. But like Gertrude Stein, we can begin, again and again.

As Neff points out, self-esteem isn’t a good way to go because it’s based on judgemental thinking, which will never capture the miracle of our unfolding lives. Self-esteem is like a narrow, barren ledge that’s all too easy to topple off. That is, unless you’re a flaming narcissist. But in that case, friends would soon sicken from your constant self-involvement and withdraw from you—a different kind of barren ledge. One I guess you’d never fall from since you’d be so solidly convinced of your own greatness. But you’d still be lonely, right? And maybe start sending out barely coherent, poorly informed, offensive and downright scary tweets at 3am. Or whatever.

Neff makes the case that self-compassion is a more effective motivator than self-esteem because “its driving force is love not fear.” (SC 165) In her view, self-compassion comprises kindness toward ourselves, an awareness of our shared humanity, and mindful presence. Instead of puffing ourselves up by telling ourselves how wonderful we are, or dragging ourselves through the mud because we didn’t live up to our expectations, we’re with ourselves, the way a friend or a loving parent would be. When something goes badly in our life, instead of either denying it or pummeling ourselves, we acknowledge what happened and the pain we feel, remind ourselves that mistakes happen and are part of what make us part of the human community, and think about how we can do better next time.

Neff and others have conducted a number of studies that prove the efficacy of self-compassion. In one, she and researcher Roos Vonk proved that self-compassion was associated with steadier feelings of self-worth over time than self-esteem. Self-compassion was also found to be more independent of particular outcomes such as social approval. And it was associated with less of what the Buddhists call “comparing mind,” in which we constantly measure ourselves against others’ achievements and advantages.

Like Neff, I’ve spent years attending meditation retreats stressing the importance of compassion toward self and others. So I’m right there with her when she gets all spiritual and writes, “When we’re mainly filtering our experience through the ego, constantly trying to improve or maintain our high self-esteem, we’re denying ourselves the thing we actually want most. To be accepted as we are, an integral part of something much greater than our small selves. Unbounded. Immeasurable. Free.” (SC 158)

Shifting the paradigm to self-compassion isn’t easy, because our society is so oriented toward its sorry substitute, self-inflation. But with patience and practice, we can begin. And begin again, and yet again, like Gertrude Stein did. At every faulty tumble, every flash of envy, pausing to give ourselves real love.

Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 2: Mirror, Mirror

So just to review, self-esteem is “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself.” On the face of it, that sounds like an ideal way to be, right? It certainly aligns with Western culture’s emphasis on competition and individuality. It’s a cutthroat world (so the thinking goes); you’d best give yourself a pep talk in front of the mirror each morning about all your fabulous qualities so you can go out there and beat everyone else at whatever game you’re playing. Eat instead of getting eaten.

The problem, as Kristin Neff explains in her book Self: Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, is that on both the macro and micro levels, our nation’s obsession with self-esteem has let us down.

On the macro level, there’s the correlation I mentioned earlier between the widespread emphasis on raising self-esteem and an increase in narcissism, or egocentrism. Mass egocentrism unravels the social fabric—if we’re busy staring at our reflections, we’re not available to connect to and support one another. Actually it’s even worse than that—narcissistic people tend to get mean when their inflated sense of themselves is punctured. Egocentrism also contributes to a surreal atmosphere in which many people are more impressed with themselves—and convinced that others are too—than is actually the case.

Another serious problem resulting from our obsession with self-esteem is grade inflation, which actually disinhibits striving to do one’s best. American students lag behind students from other countries in most ways, yet operate under the delusion that they’re the brightest on the planet—and when a kid gets an A for lifting her pinky finger, who can blame her?

A third problem with wide implications is that self-esteem is strongly influenced by the judgments of strangers. That means we’re allowing people who don’t know us at all to determine our self-worth. Our culture’s emphasis on self-esteem aligns with the high value we place on individuality—yet ironically, self-esteem leads us to want to fit in. And that makes us vulnerable to forces investing vast resources in figuring out how to shape our preferences and behaviors in a creepy sci-fi way.

Self-esteem disappoints on the individual, subjective level as well. One cause for this has to do with the fact that self-esteem tends to be tied to things we value. If I’m driven by self-esteem, I’m motivated to work on endeavors I care about and avoid ones I don’t. But there might be some things I don’t care about that would be good to work on anyway, like getting good grades or being on time. In this way, self-esteem can limit me. On the flip side, I might waste my time struggling to achieve something I value but that I’m not suited to, like being a supermodel. (Although I’m sure if I really decided to become a supermodel I could do so … this is all about moi, right?)

Because self-esteem is dependent on external measures, it keeps us on a roller coaster of elation and dejection, depending on the feedback of others and on how well we achieve our goals. The successes we experience can become addictive—when I achieve something, I get a rush of good feeling, which pushes me to strive in order to replicate the rush. No time to smell the roses in this scenario.

People with inflated self-esteem often end up lonely. Others may be initially attracted to a narcissist only to realize that the individual doesn’t really have energy for them (except to the extent that he tries to keep them around to reflect back his greatness).

Lastly, self-esteem is based on narrow, static self-judgements, not a rich, nuanced appreciation of our constantly evolving nature. We radically shrink our perceptions of ourselves and reality when we depend on self-esteem to feel good.

Are you sufficiently primed to hear about self-compassion and why it's so preferable? Coming up in Part 3.

Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 1: Bashing Vasco

In case you haven’t heard, self-esteem is out, and self-compassion is in. The science supports this development and so do I.

Merriam-Webster defines self-esteem as “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself.” Self-esteem got a big boost in the '80s when California State Senator John Vasconcellos created his now infamous task force to promote it. A repressed Catholic who worked hard to heal himself through therapy and self-help books, Vasconcellos came to believe that inculcating high self-esteem in everyone from children to gang members would heal many of the ills that ail society.

In spite of all that self-healing, he screwed up. As author Will Storr documents in The Guardian, Vasconcellos recruited university scientists to research the benefits of self-esteem, but the results of the study were mixed at best. “Vasco” quashed the negative findings, twisting and exaggerating the positive ones. He did this so successfully (thanks to his hard-earned self-esteem!) that he won over everyone from Bill Clinton to Oprah Winfrey and helped influence a few decades of misguided efforts on the part of school administrators, law enforcement officials, CEOs, parents, and others to boost the population’s self-esteem. Gold stars were handed out liberally, regardless of actual performance.

Photo by MarkBernard/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by MarkBernard/iStock / Getty Images

Speaking of liberals, Storr points out that leftie Vasconcellos’ focus on self-esteem fed right into the neoliberal agenda of Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, pitting puffed-up selves against one another other in the alienating and aggressive ‘80s race of my Me against yours.

A race that hasn’t stopped, BTW. Narcissism in Western culture is on the rise. And thanks to the ubiquitous smartphone, the Me Generation has morphed into the Selfie Generation. I love tech like you do, people, but I don’t love how it has fed our ever-greater tendency toward self-absorption. (That’s “greater” as in “worse and worse,” not “greater” as in “better and better.”)

But wait. I remember sitting around a table in the mid-80s with fellow administrators of nonprofit programs for underserved kids. We’d just gotten news about Vasconcellos’ project. And we were thrilled. We were doing all we could to help kids muster the inner resources to go up against incredible odds, to contribute and succeed. Vascencellos was clearly on the same page.

And wait. Speaking of pages, I remember sitting around a living room in the mid-80s with my book group discussing Women & Self-Esteem by Linda Tshirhart Sanford and Mary Ellen Donovan. We were young, earnest, insecure women trying to gather the courage to speak up, set high goals. We treasured the book’s support and tips.

I’m all for taking Vasconcellos (who died in 2014 at the age of 82) to task for his task-force sins. And in my next post I’ll talk about the distinction between self-esteem and self-compassion, and why it’s way better to shoot for the latter. But for now I’ll simply point out: Yes, he was misguided and he lied and he contributed mightily to further shredding our social fabric. I’m unhappy about that. But did Vasco’s passion for self-healing contribute to the ongoing scientific study of self-worth and the growing cultural awareness that the way we treat ourselves is integrally related to how we treat others?

I’m guessing the answer is yes.

This Thing I Found: Teens Teach Us How to See Freshly

Recently I returned to an earlier incarnation, teaching a couple poetry classes at the high school in New York Mills, a town in upstate Minnesota where I've just completed a writing residency. I taught poetry pretty intensively for a number of years but that was a while ago. I loved re-entering “the classroom.” (As if it’s the same classroom, wherever one is—and that’s true, in a certain way—and not, in others. But I digress.).

Kasey Wacker, the teacher, had informed me that her 11th graders had all written poems, but not many, and not in quite a while. I chose a lesson built around an excerpt from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together.”

Like his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” each line in this poem asks the reader to look at a pineapple in an entirely new way.  The second stanza, for example, reads:

4. The sea is sprouting upward out of rocks.

5. The symbol of feasts and of oblivion . . .

6. White sky, pink sun, trees on a distant peak.

As I held a pineapple aloft, we discussed Stevens’ strategies for waking up our powers of perception. Not only does Stevens give us a new image in each numbered line; he also changes up the syntax (a whole sentence followed by two fragments), the use of punctuation, the music of the language, the scale (from a rock to a mountain), and the type of figurative language employed (metaphoric in lines 4 and 6; symbolism in line 5). The vocabulary too is full of surprises, like the word “sprouting” where you’d expect “spouting”—so you get the spouting action of water but also the sense that the water is alive, growing up out of the rocks.

And that’s just one stanza!

I then gave the students each their own fruit or vegetable and asked them to employ some of Stevens’ strategies to write their own poems. With remarkably little experience in the genre, they dove right in.

My coachy takeaway? Find some teenagers to hang around with. They are coming into their full power as interesting individuals with big brains. Yet their curiosity and permeability can remind us older humans to break out of our ruts and responsibilities, give ourselves fully to life, receiving life’s goodies in return.

Kasey sent me all 40 poems afterward. Part of me wants to publish all 40. Instead, I'll tantalize you with a smattering of the great work Kasey's students did (see below). Even in this sample there's a range of forms and tones—enjoy!

What (brussels sprout)

Round like a watermelon, yet small.

The fresh smell, a Sunday morning in May.

Each layer barely over the next.

 

Like the veins in a heart.

They go towards the center.

The whole is nothing without the center.

The center is irrelevant without the whole.

 

Each layer a limb, each piece a muscle.

With more power in than out, the body develops.

One day it stops, and the Sunday morning turns to Monday.  —Jake

 

This Thing I Found (brussels sprout)

Green and round,

this thing I found.

With veiny leaves,

and no fleas.              —Maddie

 

The Things You Can See  (small yellow pepper)

1.  The bulb hung alone on the tree.

2.  The tiny pot held the most beautiful upside down flower.

3.  Would they ever pull the sword out of the stone?

4.  Can you hear that bell . . .

5.  Look! That bird has no legs.

6.  The mushroom was covered in bumps.                        —Kaitlyn Dykhoff

 

A Cherry Pulled Apart (ground cherry)

1.   The dark green rivers within

2.   The tail of the taut mouse slips away

3.   An egg inside a frail shell

 

4.   Wrinkling away as new arrives within

5.   The brightness within the dark

6.   Veins of the animal show through battered skin

 

7.    A hut of darkness with life within

8.   The old man hardened with kindness in his soul

 

 

Poem (reaper pepper)

The wrinkled red reaper is as hot as the summer

days    gives you chills like the winter nights.

Red as blood, vivid as a memory, exotic as a bird.

Its thin hide reveals the tasty beauty inside.

 

At Peace (potato)

The bird, plump and bald

perches; bathing in the light,

in a deep slumber.

 

The Hand (ginger)

1   From the swallows of the tomb

2   came the hand

3   crawling creepily, steadily

4   it emerged

5   into the dawn, the light

6   it wrinkled, decaying

7   twisted, crisped, squirming

8   dying in the rays

9   from the bitter son

10 so back to the swallows

11 it retreated

12 sobbing, anguished, lifeless

13 gone

Dream On - Part 6: Dream Analysis Example

Here's an example of Gestalt dream technique in action, using one of my own dreams, from a period when I was experiencing uncertainty about my next steps in my professional and creative life. I start by recounting the dream (no dream is too short—even a fragment can yield rich results). I describe the overall mood or atmosphere, then inhabit each significant part, animate and inanimate.

Dream: I’m driving into a city with my mother and some kids. I see dark, ominous clouds of various shapes and levels amassing right over the city. As we drive over a bridge into the city, I see a black cloud in the shape of a boot drop down. It seems to hit the head of a swimmer. This action has a sense of gangster warfare—the old-fashioned Italian type—menacing. But there’s also a sense that these gangsters carrying out this aggressive battle are not interested in us ordinary folk.

Mood: Ominous but intriguing, like a quickly evolving film that turns cartoon-ish. In making this shift it becomes almost funny in an edgy, hysterical way while at the same time becoming even more concretely menacing—a boot falling from the sky and kicking someone in the head appears as a surreal cartoon but is at the same time more substantive than clouds massing and swirling.

“I”: I wonder if we’re insane for barreling along right into the storm. I wonder if we should be pulling off to the side. I know I’m the only alert adult present—I can’t count on my mother to make decisions in this situation. I wish to be passive but I feel I should be active. But I don’t know what to do, and I feel pulled forward by the momentum of the car, of the unfolding scene.

Mom: I feel placid. I hate driving. I’m so glad my daughter is driving so I don’t have to take responsibility. I can just be, gaze, observe, think my thoughts. My daughter can handle everything.

Kids: The grownups are acting like it’s OK to be in this situation. So we guess reality is supposed to be this frightening. It’s also exciting, watching ourselves roll right into this vision. It’s like a film or even a cartoon. It’s real and unreal, troubling and wildly entertaining. We’re just drinking it all in, no filters.

Clouds: We are angry and nothing can stop us. We move through the air like we own it. Out of ourselves we form a menace people might laugh at. But watch us form into a huge hard boot that kicks a swimmer hard in the head. Now we are this boot. We form from air but we become hard mass, a weapon. Call us cartoon, but you wouldn’t want to be that swimmer. We will dominate this war with the other dark powers.

Swimmer: I was just swimming and got totally socked with pain. This is what I get for letting down my guard. I have enemies who want to destroy me—I can’t relax ever.

Bridge: I provide access to the densely populated, magical, energetic city. I can’t keep people in or out but if they decide to come, I’ll be their passageway. Once you’re on me you can’t get off because I’m over water.

Water: In me, both pleasure and danger can happen. Beings can swim skillfully through me or drown. I separate the city from the rest of the world. In that way I’m like a moat, something that must be crossed over in order to enter the action, the center.

City: I’m where the action is. I’m what humans have created. I’m all artifice but at the same time I’m where the great human party happens. I’m the place of the least and the most contact. I hold promises that I deliver and foil. In a storm, like now, it’s dangerous to be in me with my tall buildings that could be hit and fall, crushing denizens.

If I were to continue working with this dream I would take one or more of the parts that seem most "not-me" and demonstrate their energy physically. For example, I might become the clouds massing in the sky, and the boot falling and hitting the swimmer. I might then "speak" those parts as "me, Sarah" to help integrate them into my conscious psyche.

I could go even further, representing the dream or an aspect of it in an artistic medium (skills not necessary!). Or I might prefer to move on to analyzing another dream. Either way will yield insights.

Dream On - Part 5: A Dream Analysis Technique (cont.)

Hey, dreamer, in my last post I addressed three of the six basic principles you need to grok dreams the Gestalt way:

  • Everything in the dream is an aspect of the dreamer
  • The dreamer reenacts the dream in the here-and-now
  • The dreamer sticks to the scenario of the dream, instead of generalizing based on waking life

In this post we'll look at the remaining three principles :

  • The parts that are not “I” are emerging consciousness
  • Dreams are embodied consciousness
  • Only the dreamer can discover the dream’s meaning

Zooming in a bit closer:

The parts that are not “I” are emerging consciousness: The elements of the dream that are not the “I” are seen in Gestalt theory as emerging consciousness—present but not quite ready to be “owned” by the dreamer. By inhabiting the point of view of each element in turn, the individual sees the dream scenario from new perspectives that often yield surprising insights. (Even elements that seem destructive or in some way unacceptable from the perspective of the “I” can have revelatory messages when inhabited in the retelling. A tornado might be seen as terrifying by the “I,” but when inhabited, can reveal excitement.) The dreamer becomes conscious of what is on the edge of consciousness—so this is a growth experience, custom-designed for this individual at this point in her development by her own deeper self. According to Kenneth Meyer,

The point of dream work is not necessarily to discover something totally new, but to sharpen the existential dilemmas we find ourselves in, to strip away the details and circumstances that mute the felt-sense of our situations.

 

Dreams are embodied consciousness: Gestalt theory views dreams as embodied consciousness. Our dreams aren’t abstract thoughts—they are bodily metaphors. A person might dream of swimming in a pool and finding all the water draining out, leaving him sitting alone at the bottom of the cold, empty pool; this might be pointing to the way he has felt “let down” by others in real life, and to a “sinking” feeling he felt when he realized he was being “let down.” Perhaps when this experience occurred in real life, he did not directly deal with it. His dream shows up to give him a chance to face this “unfinished business” (a term coined by Gestalt theorists).

Note that Gestalt theorists see metaphors not as the results of verbal thinking, but as the source of language. The dream comes first; then we describe it in language. This accords with the perspective of linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By:

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish—a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

Only the dreamer can discover the dream’s meaning: Gestalt theorists believe that only the individual can discover the meaning of his or her dream. In a longer dream workshop we would extend this this to include a practice whereby an individual whose dream is up for discussion can decide whether or not to invite group members to offer observations using the sentence frame “If this were my dream.” This frame, along with other discussion guidelines, ensure safety by making it clear that the individual is the owner of the dream and its meaning, and keeps us from giving advice. However, for today, we will not offer our own observations of others’ dreams.

In my next post, I'll demonstrate Gestalt dream analysis using one of my own dreams.

Dream On - Part 4: A Dream Analysis Technique

Approaches to dream analysis abound, including Freudian, Jungian, shamanic, culture dreaming, and problem solving techniques. One method I’m especially fond of is Gestalt dream analysis.

Gestalt psychology was developed by Fritz Perls (1893–1970) and Laura Posner Perls (1905–1990) in reaction to traditional psychoanalysis.

Instead of focusing on past trauma, Gestalt focuses on the here and now. It uses experiential techniques, including dream work, to help individuals safely and directly confront and work through difficulties. In addition to Fritz and Laura Perls’ early studies with leading psychologists, theologians, philosophers, and developers of bodywork approaches such as Feldenkreis and Alexander technique, Laura Perls was a student of movement and dance and an accomplished pianist, and Fritz Perls had a strong background in theater. Their artistic training is easily evident in the approach they developed, and this is in turn helps make Gestalt dream work particularly well suited to developing our creativity.

Basic principles of this approach include:

  • Everything in the dream is an aspect of the dreamer
  • The dreamer reenacts the dream in the here-and-now
  • The dreamer sticks to the scenario of the dream, instead of generalizing based on waking life
  • The parts that are not “I” are emerging consciousness
  • Dreams are embodied consciousness
  • Only the dreamer can discover the dream’s meaning

Let’s take a closer look at the first three of these principles:

Everything in the dream is an aspect of the dreamer: The German word gestalt, as used by Fritz and Laura Perls and other German psychologists who inspired their work, means “something that is made of many parts and yet is somehow more than or different from the combination of its parts; broadly, the general quality or character of something.” When applied to dream work, the word points to the fact that dreams include various characters, objects, forces, settings, and moods, and that all of these elements are aspects of the dreamer’s mind. These elements combine to reveal something the dreamer is working through. Gestalt dream work stays focused on the meaning of each aspect of a dream in the context of that particular dream. As Kenneth Meyer (President of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy founded by Fritz and Laura Perls) puts it,

A horse within a dream is not any horse, but a specific horse, in a specific setting and in a specific relationship to the other figures. Associating to “horse,” or even acting out one’s general idea of a horse, will not give insight to the motivations and interactions of this particular dream-horse, at this particular time and in this particular context.

The dreamer reenacts the dream in the here-and-now:  Gestalt theorists see experiential here-and-now reenacting of a dream as much more powerful and effective than intellectual analysis. The individual slowly retells the dream as if it’s happening now, beginning by establishing the dream’s mood. To appreciate the gestalt of the dream, the individual inhabits not only the “I” of the dream but every other prominent aspect of it, knowing that every aspect is part of the dreamer. Jack Downing, a founder of the Gestalt Institute of San Francisco, describes it this way:

… If I am driving along a dream highway, the car, the road, the passing automobiles, the distant mountains, the unseen dread, all are me … The car in my dream isn’t my actual car, it is my impression, my memory trace of that automobile, having attributes and opinions and attitudes coming from me, not the vehicle.

The dreamer sticks to the scenario of the dream, instead of generalizing based on waking life: Approaching dreams in this way takes practice, because it’s tempting to think of elements in the dream in the terms one usually thinks of them in waking life. Just as the dream car isn’t the actual car, people from our waking lives who show up in our dreams aren’t the actual people. When Aunt Minnie appears in a dream, it’s important in the retelling to stick to what she is doing, saying, and feeling in this dream, not get caught up in describing her typical behavior in waking life. And Aunt Minnie’s appearance in last night’s dream might have a completely different import than her appearance in another dream.

Up next: A closer look at the remaining core principles of Gestalt dream work.