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On Gratitude, Poetry, and Community

2 Dec

Scott Hayman, left, with Lionel Romaine

Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to be speak as part of a panel of colleagues who, one way or the other, promote community service on the Assumption College campus.

Struggling to find an intriguing thought that could frame my own presentation, my friend Scott Hayman came to mind. That figures. Leave it to a poet to figure out how to bring themes of community together.

In fact, he considers community itself to be a poem.

“A good poem is living and breathing, and has multiple perspectives and multiple contributors, and is really quite dynamic,” he told me the story during an interview back in 2014. “And there is a form, but within that form, there is everything in the world that could happen.

“And the way you approach a poem involves a covenant in that you’re not going to just read it, that it’s not a one-way street, but a two-way street. That’s definitely what community is all about.”

Meanwhile, the phrase most relevant to my recent presentation concerned how, when he worked with a clearinghouse program charged with collecting furniture for the less fortunate, he became a little too stressed with the surface goal. Finally his supervisor had a word with him.

“He told me, ‘You know, Scott, it’s not just about the sofas,’ ” he said with a soft laugh. His supervisor went on to explain that their altruistic enterprise was also about all the relationships being built through the effort – including friendships that would be there for him decades later.

“This act of gathering stuff from some people and giving it to other people is breaking down barriers in a whole variety of ways.”

ACE staffer Tereza takes her turn on the runway. (Photo by Rose Wine Photography.)

During my presentation a few weeks ago, I used “sofa” metaphor to describe how any act of service hopefully has not just the stated overt goal – which remains important – but a deeper level of community. This includes the chance to learn more about diverse kinds of people by working alongside them toward an altruistic goal.

Now, the day before Thanksgiving, it occurs to me that one thing to be thankful for as been how that community has saved me this year, time and time again.

It’s been a particularly hard and challenging fall – in the last three months, I have lost first my father, then a dear colleague, then a friend who had helped me to develop a consistent spiritual practice. But amid the hard slog of grief, I’ve found myself turning to the joy, warmth, and purpose of various service communities. On campus, there have been the inspiring examples of altruistic endeavors by colleagues, both in the form of innovative teaching and extracurricular mission opportunities.

Off campus,  there has been the work of my students at African Community Education. I’ve been blessed by ACE for five years now, ever since I showed up to volunteer as a tutor. A year later, I entered the mentoring program; I was lucky enough to be paired with Therence Nthinduka. At the time we met, Therence had only been speaking English for a year. But through his hard work and sheer intellectual curiosity, Therence was a quick learned; by the time he graduated in May, he was vice-president of the Student Council, a member of the Honors Society, and recipient of eight college acceptances. When Therence moved on to Worcester State University, his little brother Freddy took his place as my mentoring partner.

But, as with Scott’s sofas, the tutoring is only the start of the benefits of working with the ACE community. There is the inspiration, energy, warmth and joy of being with the kids themselves – and the same can be said of the staff and volunteers who keep the program going. This semester my own CSL students have experienced the benefits. One class is both tutoring and blogging for ACE; another, consisting of two CSL Minors, have joined me in team-interviewing ACE’s co-founder, Kaska Yawo.

Assumption students at the Gala: From left, Julie Craven, Maria Barrett, Morgan Maddock, Sydney Tappan, Grace Corbett, and Skyler Hesch. (Photo by David Niles.)

Many of my students went above and beyond by helping work the ACE fundraising Gala at Mechanics Hall – a joyous celebration of all things ACE, including, most importantly, the ACE students. Those kids gave speeches, they danced, they drummed – and they even strutted their stuff in a runway Fashion Show, to much applause. It was one of those nights that allowed my heart and mind to expand beyond my own troubles – into a larger community that’s given me not only as much as I’ve given, but more.

As Scott said, community, like a poem, is not just a one-way street. To enter the world of serving is to enter a covenant ourselves – to give ourselves over to a communal poem in which we actually participate, each of us changed, and for the better, by the other.

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to be part of the poem called Assumption College – and, of course,  the one called African Community Education.

Service, The Chris Beyers Way

21 Oct

Way back in the first month of the new millennium, I was a newly graduated academic on the job interview circuit, with my share of campus visits behind me. One way I sought to alleviate my anxiety was to have more than one goal for the day-long interview. Even if I didn’t get the job teaching English at Assumption College – something ultimately beyond my control – I could at least collect amusing anecdotes to tell my grad school buddies.

Enter Chris Beyers.

Chris had volunteered to lead me on my campus tour – a walk-about that came less than two hours before the most challenging part of the day, my teaching demonstration. Just a few years removed from being in my shoes, Chris took my mind off this challenge with candid, yet balanced, observations  that made the campus feel more real and thus more comfortable.

Then we entered D’Alzon Library. Back in 2000, the college was putting up portraits of various faculty holding a prop – usually a book, but sometimes something more creative. (Years later, my prop would be my dog.) Chris gestured at one such portrait. “When I get mine done,” he declared, “I will be astride a noble steed.”

Mission accomplished.

Newly relaxed, I wound up with the job, and one reward for my achievement was 19 more years of Chris Beyers witticisms. I quickly became used to Chris wandering into my office, coffee mug in hand, and launching immediately into some hypothetical puzzle he was trying to solve, often one he was about to lecture in class. It didn’t matter that I often hadn’t read the work in question; my role was to listen closely and to appreciate the sheer presence of Chris’s personality. I came to see myself – a journalist after all – as the host of an Assumption version of The Today Show, and Chris as some fabulously witty guest from Broadway. (Nathan Lane often came to mind.)  When he left – usually shortly before walking across campus with that same mug of coffee, which somehow he never spilled – I felt blessed to be in a profession that put me in the presence of people as wise and witty as Chris Beyers.

Later the talk-show roles would be reversed. Our campus used to have occasional happy hour gatherings in one of the science labs – there were refrigerators there – and when the diligent hosts stepped aside, Chris filled that void. Not only did he take time to order beverages for the occasion – including craft root beer – but he also came with hypothetical questions to pose to whomever came, just to stir up interesting conversation and keep us from falling into the usual shop talk and departmental cliques.

I think of all those stories, and so many more, these days because Chris Beyers is gone, dying unexpectedly. My sympathy and that of our department goes out most to his son Will, a sophomore at Assumption. Meanwhile, his colleagues and students are left in shock and sadness; less than three months ago, Chris and I were at a local jazz club, listening to Peruvian jazz guitarist Carlos Odria, with me enjoying the observations of the colleague who always had jazz in heavy rotation in his office.

Now, inexplicably, an inspiring colleague and beloved friend is gone.

All this said, those who know Chris might be surprised that he’s appearing in a blog dedicated to community service. After all, Chris wasn’t exactly a “Cumbayah” kind of guy. As far as I cold tell, My friend’s interest in group-building activities didn’t extend much beyond coaching his son’s soccer team. Mission trips? He would’ve resisted the emotional bonding, and the  nightly reflections about feel-good moments of connection was something he probably would’ve challenged at times, making students situate their experience in a deeper social context. While he respected experiential learning, he often argued on behalf of the shy but engaged students who didn’t want to do “active learning” – who wanted to quietly absorb readings and lectures without jumping through the hoops of classroom activities hoops like seals at a public aquarium. (And, yes, Chris would’ve made that observation more crisply, and thus more witty.)

But Chris’s life represents the kind of service that is often overlooked in all the photo opps and feel-good stories of volunteerism.

For they also serve who work alone.

Take Fresh Assumptions, a Chris Beyers invention. The annual review featured the best work by first-year student writers – giving them, at age 18 or 19, an essay published in an actual book. In one sense, this was a communal enterprise that touched many a life. But what impressed me most was the solitary nature of the labor. When everyone else’s role was done, Chris was the one who had to edit the prose without robbing a student of her or his voice. He had to lay out the pages. He ultimately had to create the book, get it to the publisher – and get the books into the hands of the students-turned-authors. Chris was as private as I was public, but he proved time after time that they were two ways to the same goal.

I saw that pattern repeated many times with the kind of work Chris volunteered for over the years at Assumption. So, sure, service – along with teaching and research – are the three areas in which tenure or tenure-track professors are evaluated. But there is a huge difference in the degrees of service that professors do. Chris probably tackled more than most, and he seemed drawn to work that involved championing those with less power. He helped students with his creation of opportunities to serve as Writing Fellows – and even his challenging interviewing of students at the English Department Senior Colloquium were aimed to make them smarter and, ultimately, more confident going out onto the job market. He also consistently spoke with both sensitivity and passion for faculty who were either part-time or full-timers striving to negotiate the perilous path to tenure. The latter, of course, meant Chris was poring over what had to be hundreds of pages of documents of almost everyone going up for tenure and/or promotion in a given academic year. He extended the same compassion to fictional characters, delineating in detail the predicaments of people marginalized by race, sexism, or disability.

Chris’s willingness to serve was also reflected in the wide range of courses he’d agree to teach.

This came up the same week his colleagues learned of his death, as we evaluated how we could compensate for the loss of his versatility. Meanwhile, toiling in my own office to craft midterm exam questions, I had to fight the reflex to run them by Chris, just as I also felt the urge to stop by for more general insights, some about things scholastic, some about other matters equally engaging and sometimes entertaining. When the talk shifted to my own writing, he sometimes would urge me to stick with my own writerly voice, showing his poet’s ear.

The rhetoric of community service-learning and volunteerism in general often ignores the deep kind of service that unfolds in the jobs we are paid to do. There’s just getting by, or using cynicism as an excuse for not doing one’s share – and then the kind of service that occurs when a person goes above and beyond the call, month after month, year after year.

Whether boisterously making an argument in a meeting or in his quiet labors in the solitude of his office, Chris was that kind of person – making the most of his own gifts, putting them in the service of both colleagues and students.

For so many of us these days, the gift we miss the most is, of course, the gift of his presence. But his voice, and his example, will be with me always.

Creative Altruism

26 Sep

Most mornings when I manage to write, I do so to the tune of the Soundscapes Channel on my television.

Well, to be truthful, the meditative music on Soundscapes often seems to barely have a tune at all; its very appeal is its lack of melodic busy-ness, the refusal to insist that you pay the music any attention at all.

Only, since it’s TV, there are slides, and the slides include inspirational quotes. I seldom write them down; I’d never write any of my own words if I did. But I made an exception a month ago with a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Every man,” Rev. King stated, “must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”

“Creative altruism”: The tension between those words intrigued me. In one of my earlier lives, I’d left Alabama – and a life filled with volunteer obligations – for a creative writing program. Wary of the threat of my extrovert tendencies posed for any kind of solitary writerly endeavor, I shirked volunteerism as if altruism itself existed in opposition to creativity.

Of course, I came to know better: Service can involve a wide range of creative and even ingenious acts. Still, for the last few months, I haven’t been sure what to do with the quotation from MLK, even though it reminded of its existence every time I scrolled to the bottom of the word document I use as my writing journal.

Then came Lisa Pastille. Lisa is the sister of the late Professor Catherine Pastille, one of our most creative practitioners of community service-learning at Assumption College. Lisa saw my recent blog about Catherine here at Serving … the Story, and I was blessed to read two emails from Lisa afterward.

Lisa noted how her sister thrived when she merged business expertise with community service, putting her students to work for real-life customers.

As Lisa put it, “Assumption made it possible for her to express herself and her passions.” The result, Lisa said, was like “plugging a wire into an outlet.”

Lisa, an artist herself, was reminding me of my earlier life lesson: That the obligations of community service don’t exist in opposition to the creative life. Instead, service itself is an energizing form of self-expression.

And when teachers use service-learning in the classroom, we’re expressing several things  at once: Our need to design learning experiences that might make a difference in their lives decades after they graduate, our passion about fostering awareness of community needs and issues, our commitment to imaginative teaching that sets aside the safety of old classroom for something more adventurous – because that, after all, is what creativity, and altruism, are so often about.

Celebrating Our Friend, Catherine Pastille

13 Sep
Catherine Pastille with African Community Education’s Kaska Yawo and student Lauren Cranston.

When Catherine Pastille came to teach Management at Assumption College in 2012, she didn’t waste any time applying the principles of community service-learning to her coursework. Even though Catherine was new to Worcester, she began forming CSL partnerships in the community as soon as she arrived, leading to CSL components in two courses and four total sections in her first year.

Her Management 311 course emphasized the need for students to actually experience Corporate Social Responsibility: “By working alongside professionals from corporations that take their responsibility to the community seriously,” Catherine wrote, “students are able to see how modern organizations strategically integrate their service to the community and their responsibilities to the natural environment into their everyday work life.”

The one I experienced directly, however, was her Management 100 students boldly taking on the planning and execution of a College Access Day for kids from African Community Education, an organization devoted to helping African refugees and other immigrants close the educational gap they encounter in adapting to an English-speaking school system and myriad other challenges.

Enjoying lunch amid the ACE College Access Day.

In the process, Catherine Pastille created plenty of challenges for herself and her students – one can easily imagine every logistical hitch that can arise in transporting a busload of kids to a college campus, moving them through every phase of a campus visit, and getting them home again. Especially when part of the challenge is giving one’s students space to do as much of the planning, execution, and critiquing as possible … yet students and professor teamed to facilitate a great day for refugee children, helping expand their vision of future possibilities in their new country. (You can read more about that extraordinary day in an earlier blog about the occasion.)

Sadly, the Assumption community lost this innovative and altruistic teacher and colleague this June after a long illness. So this morning I find myself launching the revival of Serving the Story by writing about her. I’m even reading the grant applications and syllabi from Catherine’s CSL courses – so bold and ambitious, the mark of a fearless teacher with a broad vision.

Of course, as I read what she wrote and scan the photos, I feel the sadness of what the Community Service-Learning Program and Assumption College as a whole lost with her passing. But my heart is warmed by memories of Catherine moving through all the steps of that day with a bemused grin, teaching her students how to navigate all the unknowns with a well-struck balance of serious focus and a sense of humor – and, in the process, help our students farther down the path to being mature, confident professionals and altruistic, empathetic citizens.

We will continue to miss Catherine Pastille – but we’ll continue to be inspired by her example.

One of Catherine’s students enjoying a visit with one of ACE’s.

Hunger, Unspoken and Spoken: Nature, Activism, and Terry Tempest Williams

2 Mar

In Tempest Williams country: The Bryce Canyon I beheld in June.

When I hiked through the spectacular desert landscapes of Utah last year, I can remember where I was for so many things. That when the sun rose on my trip’s second day, I was standing on an observation point at Bryce Canyon – absorbing the way the ghostly hoodoo towers materialized from grey shadows into their sandy orange of their daytime selves. I remember that the very next morning, I was working my way along a narrow ledge path, fighting my fear of heights long enough to see the Delicate Arch up close and person, then working my way back down, back to the stone wall. Then there was the third day, the white-water rafting down the Colorado River, reddish cliffs rising in  the distance in almost every direction.

But I don’t remember where, or when, it was that I picked up Terry Tempest Williams and took her along for the ride. I reckon it was some National Park gift shop or the other, either at Zion or Bryce, Arches or Canyonlands. Anyway, somehow, someway, I grabbed An Unspoken Hunger, the fine essay collection that, since I was too busy enjoying Utah through direct experience, I wound up saving for another grey winter in congested Worcester, Massachusetts, clear across the country from the sweepingly open homeland that the author invokes so vividly, I feel like I’m there instead.

I reveled in what I read. Tempest Williams writes of nature with a hypnotic blend of lyricism and practicality, writing about the people of the West – including Abbey and Georgia O’Keefe – with almost as much vividness as she does nature herself. There’s meditativeness and there’s mirth, reverence and irreverence. There is a haunting weaving of mythology – sometimes Native American, sometimes Greek – that suggests a visionary imagination. A biologist by training, she clearly knows her natural science, but her soul feels more like that of a poet.

But I write about Terry Tempest Williams here – in a blog focused on community service and related issues – for still another reason. Even as Dave Eggers – the writer I featured in my last blog – turned to helping start an imaginative tutoring center in San Francisco, Terry Tempest Williams has turned both her words and actions to social issues. Some causes, of course, are painfully personal. Her 1991 memoir – Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place – included the essay “The Clan of One-Breasted Women,” exploring the possibility that the high incidence of cancer in her family is the result of living downwind from nuclear weapon tests in Utah. But she’s journeyed east to D.C. at different times to protest in public and to testify before Congress itself, and – journeying even farther from home – worked as an artist in war-torn Rwanda.

No matter how deep one’s convictions run, the life of the activist and advocate requires spiritual renewal. As Tempest Williams herself puts it, “Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.” If you feel in such a reminder these days, turn to the beauty of nature, and wildness, and art, that I just discovered in An Unspoken Hunger.

Terry Tempest Williams in the land she loves. (Photo: Cheryl Himmelstein.)


Artistic collaboration, arghh!

25 Feb

Dave Eggers, writer and advocate. (Photo from Huffington Post.)

One stereotype of authors is that, more than anything, they want to be left alone. There’s a profoundly individualistic side of the craft – a deep need for the flexibility of schedule that allows them to play out the conversations in their heads, and the exacting work of shaping those conversations into something of lasting creative merit. It creates a fear of distraction that makes each potential commitment to the community seem like a career-ender of a threat to one’s productivity.

Leave it to the ever-original Dave Eggers to find the flip side of the situation – one that turns writers’ need for freedom into an opportunity to serve others.

Eggers burst onto the literary scene as an author with his self-parodying memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a brilliantly self-conscious approach to storytelling in which he recounts the death of his parents within 35 days of each other and how he and his sister moved to San Francisco, where they raised their eight-year-old brother while also pursuing their own dreams as 20-somethings. But after this both moving and frequently hilarious book focused on his own family and friends, his vision expanded far beyond his own relationships or even the United States. You Shall Know Our Velocity! is a novel about two friends traveling the world trying to give away a huge amount of money, What is the What tells the story of an African refugee, Zeitoun focuses on the hardships of an Islamic family from Syria, and Surviving Justice offers interviews with the wrongfully incarcerated.

Meanwhile, during a 2014 road trip – in which I volunteered my way across the country in search of my own next cause – I came across Eggers again, in the form of his preface to a book about San Francisco’s famously activist Glide Memorial Methodist Church, where I volunteered myself. Eggers introduced Beyond the Possible by focusing on what seems impossible – living up to the church’s goal of “unconditional love” for any person who walks in the door.

In that preface, Eggers writes: “Could an individual person keep his or her own lights on, their arms and doors open, at all times?”

“It’s hard, that’s for sure. It’s really damned hard. There’s always someone who annoys us. … Wherever you are, there is someone who is unwelcome.”

Particularly, you might add, when you’re trying to write.


Yet Eggers and his fellow writers at McSweeney’s found a remarkable way to keep their own doors open to all – by opening the literary magazine’s office to children in need of tutoring. Eggers tells the story of the tutoring organization, 826 Valencia, in a TED talk that, like so much of his writing, uses his quirky imagination and outright hilarity to move and inspire. Of course, the subject matter is intrinsically amusing and inspiring: 826 Valencia combines a tutoring center and the magazine office with a pirate supply store “for the working buccaneer.” (The latter because, as it turned out, real estate zoning required them to sell something.)

Since its start, 826 Valencia has inspired similar centers from coast to coast – the Brooklyn version includes a crime-fighters supply store with a “capery”, and the Los Angeles version offers a time travel quickie mart. Eggers stresses the local leadership of all these places, but what they all have in common is the merging of the adult writer and school children, who even generate their own books. Underlying the entire project seems to be a deep and abiding belief in the power of the imagination. Ironically, one of the things that make it possible is that due to their flexible schedules, creative types locked into individualistic pursuits are the most available to help future generations of writers and artists.

I urge anyone interested in education or community-building – or anyone who loves the life of the imagination or even just a good laugh – to check out Eggers’ TED talk, as well as my previous blog on Eggers and Glide As well as deeply consider the challenge Eggers makes to his audience at the end of his TED talk – to reach out to our own local schools and ask how we can help.

Storm Dogs

9 Feb

Once you embark on any endeavor to serve others, there are almost always unexpected opportunities to make a difference for some people – or, in the case of a dozen state troopers from Massachusetts sent to Puerto Rico, some dogs.

Some storm-surviving canines were fed by the state troopers, and eventually found their way to a Sterling animal shelter recently for adoption. See the story – and of course plenty of dog pictures in the Worcester Telegram.

Meanwhile, even as this commendable act of kindness unfolded, a more sobering article details the recent federal aid package for Puerto Rico, as well as how far it falls short, in the February 8th The New York Times.

The fact that, 12 years after Hurricane Katrina, we’re still paying aid in Louisiana is just one indication that we can’t afford to forget these disasters once they fall out of our daily news cycle.

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