Funny, Isn’t It?

When I was 7 years old, I’d spend the weekend with Mema in rural New York. On Sundays we’d get up around dawn and head to the Maybrook Flea Market, park in her regular stall, and unload her station wagon, pulling out long tables and boxes packed with antiques and knickknacks tucked into newspaper, unwrapping each one like a present–a wooden cuckoo clock; a sawdust-filled babydoll with a cracked, handpainted face; a pocketwatch bought cheap at a garage sale the day before; a nest of pink plates–Depression glass was her specialty. Sometimes my step-grandfather would join us and sell his old tools. He loved flea markets too but he was a drinker and not always good about getting up early.

Once everything was set up I’d start roaming around. First to the snack bar for hot cocoa or popcorn. (The place was a drive-in movie theater at night.) I’d take the route past the candy people’s table, see them unloading box after box (they were always slower setting up) and continue snaking around their row until they finally put out that week’s display of Wacky Packages.

They were sold as trading cards, each containing a puzzle, a stiff slice of gum, and two different stickers: parodies of familiar household products. To my kid mind they were witty and wonderful.

My dad had been a Madison Avenue ad man. Mom told me he was responsible for putting “Indescribably Delicious” on the Almond Joy candy bar. My preschool friend starred in commercials for Colgate toothpaste and Breck shampoo. I was more than a little obsessed with branding. When Dad would visit I’d observe the products he used–Parliament cigarettes, Dymo label makers, Hertz rental cars–because they were clues into who he was and what he did.

Looking back, I think what made Wacky Packs so consequential to me was their peculiar intimacy with my lifeworld and their gift of parody as a new way to process it. They popped my mind open to an irreverent alternative reality for which I’d been primed by television (Monty Python, Laugh-In) but could now hold in my hand. Awful Bits Cereal, Blecch Shampoo, and Hostage Cupcake stickers were subversive little artworks like I could make myself–the illustrations, the writing, the humor were all accessible to me. I thought I understood all the jokes and I knew all the products. The appeal was wickedly right. Dad was a copywriter; I could be a copywronger. Making spoof ads made me feel powerful. Professional.

As I skim the stickers from my era, the early 1970s, I’m struck by the messaging, thinking about how I might have interpreted it then. The jokes about gender and politics delivered in that way of grown-ups amusing themselves through cartoon narratives. (Turns out, the grown-up behind the jokes was Art Spiegelman, author of the graphic novel Maus.)

I don’t remember this feminist spaghetti-o sticker, but I would have liked it. I would have translated it as acknowledging rather than mocking “women’s lib.”

I might have stuck it on my lunchbox, feeling clever and righteous.

I find myself searching through this Wacky Packs archive from my sofa in Oakland, recovering from a fever, listening to the schoolkids playing nearby, wondering what stickers they’ve got on their lunchbags. What makes them feel clever and righteous.

I’ve spent most of my career helping people in and out of school make media their own by making their own media. During my early years teaching college writing I routinely assigned parodies as a way to give students the opportunity to author the kinds of texts that influenced their lives, such as websites for corporations and universities. After a decade or so I pivoted and assigned more earnest multimedia projects, digital stories developed through a process of collaborative inquiry and reflection. The digital storytelling work shared the same basic goal: authorship as critically reflective empowerment done in a makerspace scenario that would bring people together creatively, hashing over ideas that were larger than the homework at hand.

Nowadays I teach writing to both kids and adults, working in a community literacy center, a writing center, college classrooms. And I find myself wondering whether I ought to be spending more time with parody, or less. Is parody what we need now more than ever before? Or is it just another way to amuse ourselves to death?

Trump card cropped

Wacky Packages – Fracky Packages series Trumpocracy: the First 100 Days, card #28 (2017)

This is a serious question.

30% of Oakland school kids live in poverty; 1 in 8 is the child of an undocumented immigrant. What sticker might help them feel smart and savvy and hopeful and empowered? What writing projects are the best interventions?

The Topps company now makes custom Wacky Packages, including at least one series parodying the Trump presidency.

The mass appeal of absurdity is what made Trump’s election possible. Our gleeful consumption of parody is one of the luxuries of our democracy, after all.

Nixon was still president during my Wacky Pack era. Did grown-ups then feel as I do now, brittle and weary from joke after joke?


Wacky Packages series Trumpocracy: the First 100 Days, card #37, “Q: Are We Unqualified? A: We Are DEVOS!” (2017)

As a GenXer and educator I know I’m the target demographic of this sticker. But I just can’t bring myself to buy it.



Writing begets Writing


Every morning before work, a friend and I compose and send each other a quick poem, a “flash haiga.” The rules are: it must include an image we made ourselves, preferably that morning, and the writing (done as a loose sort of haiku) can’t take more than 15 minutes. (We can revise later, but the first, fresh thing must be done in a flash.)

It’s a discipline. A creative practice. It primes the pump for a day of thinking and writing and making–even if the main thing we think and write and make that day is, say, a training schedule for new teachers.

We’ve been frolicking with words for years, and although we are playful about haiku we actually respect the form deeply and understand that our correspondence is a way to pay closer attention to the details of our daily lives–sometimes even before we’ve made sense of why they seem to matter enough to share.


Back to Basics

My breakfast this morning was a gloppy, vile mess. I ate it anyway because I’d spent hours last night preparing it: a new no-one-is-a-blacksmith-at-birthcrockpot recipe for kitchari, the nutritious Ayurvedic porridge of beans, grains, spices, and vegetables that has become my mainstay during cold weather or whenever I’m organized enough to prepare a big batch that I can eat all day.

I used Meyer lemons from the tree in my new backyard, and ghee and tricolor quinoa, organic parsnips, coconut, a stick of cinnamon, cloves, other good things. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? Nope. Vile. And the texture was repulsive–mush and objects that felt like mushrooms only there were no mushrooms. But nourishing, surely. And instructive. The commonsense me thought, “Of course it was awful. You tried too hard.”

It’s true. When I try too hard at things, overthink them, invest too much time and aspire too much, the outcome is usually mediocre at best. Yesterday I’d fantasized throughout the afternoon about preparing the meal, shopping for the ingredients after work, pouring a glass of wine and relaxing into the process–but the process went on too long and became too much and  I couldn’t find a place to plug in the crockpot and had to dig in the attic for an extension cord and just generally I was a big ball of peevishness by the time I set the timer and left the kitchen.

This is a clear pattern in my teaching as well–as a yogi and as a professor–when I turn the corner of basic preparedness to over-planning, when I hope too much or expect too much from a class it becomes too precious and I lose my mojo.

I’m trying hard to remember this lesson as I prepare to teach my first class at a new college. Of course I want to be a great teacher to my students, but as a critically reflective practitioner I want to bring my best self to this experience, the one who is prepared but not obsessively so; the one who improvises easily and joyfully; the one whose students know she cares deeply about their well-being, no matter what else the day or class may bring.

My reflections today are about my core values and expertise, the things that are tried and true to my pedagogy, not about all the things I have done or that I could do–that’s all just too much; it’s how I ended up adding the seaweed to the kitchari.

Still Learning from the Fire Monkey


Seconds after this photo was taken, I crashed a few inches from the jagged rocks of the fire pit. It was 2014, the year I decided to blow up my old life and start a new one. By the Chinese zodiac it was the Year of the Horse, a year of action and optimism. I was born under the sign of the Horse and I mistakenly believed that made it an auspicious year for me and my changes. (I later learned that, according to tradition, our zodiac years are the toughest.) 2014 was good, but it was hard. And 2016 was better, and much harder.

2016 was the year of the Fire Monkey, a year of tumult and reinvention. I galloped into the year with an energy that was equal parts desperation and courage. 2014 was the year I committed to move, but I kept pausing in an effort to get it right. A tenured professor with a mortgage and deep roots in a place I knew I couldn’t remain forever, I worried that if I slowed down I’d get stuck again. Living restless was taking its toll. I flew around the world three times in two years–teaching, conferencing, fleeing home, chasing a different version of myself. The version I liked better was the one doing the headstand in 2014: unsteady but determined, willing to take risks to find the right balance in the long run. My decisions were a little more reckless and dangerous than usual, but they didn’t feel wrong. I was more than willing to get hurt if necessary. Indeed, getting hurt seemed inevitable.

My yoga then as now was more than asana, it was an attempt to manage the push-pull of my desires, the need to strengthen my foundation as I reached far beyond it. All serious yogis do this: we put our bodies into physical shapes that are embodied metaphors for the challenges of everyday living. When we stand in Tadasana, mountain pose, we are called to attention, Samasthiti–physically, this means finding equal balance, but this equipoise is also a state of mind; we are maintaining awareness as well as acceptance of how and where we are. Likewise, Vrksasana, tree pose, is the practice of remaining grounded as you take an asymmetrical form: allowing yourself to sway teaches you how to be steady; you also learn that swaying doesn’t necessarily mean unsteadiness.

By the lunar calendar, Fire Monkey year concludes soon, on January 27. After catapulting into a new city, a new job, and a new relationship, I have been attempting to decelerate, to transition as gracefully as possible, with gratitude and care. But in asana I have been spending more time in asymmetrical balancing shapes, especially Vrksasana variations, testing my edge, reminding myself that it isn’t over, that in some way I must always remain able to pivot, to choose when and where to be steadfast, and for whom.




The mythology behind Vrksasana involves another fire monkey, the deity Hanuman. In the epic Ramayana, goddess Sita–virtuous Queen to Rama–meditates against an ashoka tree for many months, resisting the provocations of her narcissistic captor, Ravana. In her stillness Sita emulates the tree, acquiring patience and fortitude. Ultimately, Sita is rescued by Rama’s loyal servant Hanuman, whose tail is set ablaze by Ravana. Hanuman’s flight from Ravana is triumphant and funny–he grows his tail impossibly long then soars through Ravana’s kingdom igniting fires until at last he quenches his tail in the ocean.

Hanuman’s pose, Hanumanasana, resembles the monkey god flying through the air: legs in a forward split, arms stretched to the sky. But this pose, like vrksasana, is as much about stability as it is about movement.

Sita and Hanuman are both divine figures of steadfastness and loyalty: Sita through pious forbearance, Hanuman through audacious adventure.

The god on my altar is Hanuman.





The Problem with Kintsugi as a Self-Improvement Metaphor

This week a student in Erik Scollon‘s “Craft as Social Justice” course truly inspired me with her project on the ethics and aesthetics of mending. She used the ceramic gold-mending technique kintsugi as her central inspiration for a call to action that challenges her audience–artists and amateurs alike–to deploy their ingenuity to preserve and hokintsugi-process-ti-the-cleaned-seams-front-by-pomax-flickr-ccbyncsa-04apr2015nor well-worn objects.

I spent much of the afternoon reflecting on ways I could apply this metaphor to my own life, highlighting and respecting inevitable cracks and fissures–in my own body, relationships, possessions, sociopolitical institutions–rather than attempting to conceal, reject, or ignore them. Kintsugi is about fixing things, yes, but it’s also about identifying ruptures and filling them with beauty.

As a digital storytelling activist I help people reclaim personal experiences, often tender ones, remaking them as attentively crafted, durable narratives. The tellers weave together fragments of memory stored in old photographs, crinkled love notes, scuffed boots. We call it storywork but it is also a form of kintsugi. Piecing together the past. Healing an old wound by telling the tale of the scar.

It is so natural, so tempting, to adopt kintsugi as a metaphor for living better in the new year ahead. But there are so many ruptures all around us. If we were to spend each day finding one precious thing and mending it we would never have time to make something new. And most precious things cannot be mended in a day. And mending doesn’t happen just once, especially not if the thing is returned to use. And preservation is about how we use things, not just about how we mend them.

So I wonder if perhaps what kintsugi is teaching me (today at least) is to focus not on the fissures or on the mending but on the gold. Perhaps the metaphor I need is that of beauty–or better yet, craftsmanship itself–as a way to bring people and things together.

“There is Some Kiss We Want”: Anava-Mala and the Yoga of Yearning

Rumi’s poetry speaks of our lifelong quest to unite with the divine as if with a lover, a yearning that is both spiritual and embodied, transcending language, rationality, and humanity–we are the lily, the moon, and the “seawater [that] begs the pearl to break its shell.”

Two years ago I began working with this poem in a yoga retreat–working with its insights as a way to confront something I’d been doing without naming it, a kind of applied yearning, a use of asana to manage the host of physical, emotional, vocational, and interpersonal transitions that arise for so many of us at mid-life. During moments of grief or frustration I would hold poses for extended periods of time, tuning into the sensations of discomfort, weakness, strength. If asked about this practice I would say I was practicing self-acceptance–but it was also an attempt to transcend the person I thought I’d become, someone I didn’t love enough, living a life that felt too mundane and small for my big heart.

I sometimes called it “fuck you yoga”–a defiant, satisfyingly ego-centered vinyasa. I would do  vasisthasana variations on a paddleboard, cranking Martha Wainright and Amy Winehouse anthems into my ears, because I could–which is to say that I was reminding myself that I could, at fortysomething, be someone who did that with my body. It made me feel youthful and empowered. I extended my limbs, testing my limits, forever reaching toward an experience of self that felt more true. At the time I understood this practice as a moving meditation, a prayer even; I was beseeching the universe for something beyond the self I was afraid I had settled into being. In retrospect, I’d now call it more of an incantation. I was seeking release.

But a part of me was searching for something else–groundedness, compassion, a way to feel strong without feeling reckless. A different kind of empowerment. An empowerment that comes from connection rather than stoic self-reliance. My illusion, the one that seemed to have sustained me for a decade living alone in a broken house with an anxious dog–was that my toughness would preserve me. I’d periodically make crappy decisions, but I would endure the consequences and keep on trucking. I felt grateful to the universe for the privilege of my independence and guilty for not making enough of it.

In his first book on the Bhavagad-Gita, yogi Ted Cox discusses three categories of maya–illusions that block each of us from recognizing our true Self. These illusions conceal truth and feed our self-doubts, manifesting in three ways: mayiya-mala, a sense that we are different from everyone else, which tempts us to compare ourselves to others and become jealous of them; karma-mala, a feeling that we aren’t doing enough and lack the resources to do better; and anava-mala, a belief that we are separate from the divine, that we are imperfect, unworthy and incomplete.

Cox explains that the anava-mala is potentially the most debilitating illusion because it reinforces the others: we erect boundaries that feed our isolation and keep us stuck. On the other hand, anava-mala is also a catalyst for personal transformation, an “urge to merge with something greater than ourselves” (142-43). This simultaneous, seemingly contradictory denial of/yearning for connectedness is the yoga of living with our illusions.

Those of us who so fervently seek a better life, a different life, a truer life are missing the point that we are already our best selves. We can change things about the way we live, but we are always already wonderful–and, deep down, so is everyone else.

Rumi says, “There is some kiss we want with our whole lives, the touch of Spirit on the body. . . .” As an embodied practice, asana can help us perform acts of grace in moments of uncertainty. We can experience the wonder of that. And what about the yearning? The yearning becomes a reminder of what we already have.

Strike a Pose: Drag as Shtirasukha

In The Heart of Yoga T.K.V. Desikachar explains how in every pose yogis aim to achieve shtirasukha, a combination of steady alertness (shthira) with comfort and lightness (sukha).

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 8.21.41 PMHe illustrates the idea with an image from Hindu mythology of Ananta, king of the serpents, carrying the whole universe on his head while providing a bed for the Lord Vishnu on his coiled body.

Ananta must be strong and steady to support the universe (shthira) but keep his body relaxed to serve as a comfortable bed for his lord (sukha) (53).

You can experience it in tree pose as you steady yourself by contracting your abdominals and hugging your leg muscles close the bone, while also softening the knee of your standing leg and maintaining a flexible poise that accepts and adapts to the gentle, inevitable wavering as you balance and breathe.

But as with everything yoga, the qualities we seek in asana aren’t only about asana, and the inner self practicing shtirasukha isn’t just a philosopher; she is also an everyday human seeking to maintain the shtira of an authentic life along with the sukha of self-love and acceptance.

Perhaps this is why my preferred model of shtirasukha is not actually Ananta, but Kim Chi, a divine contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Kim Chi at Wicked Witch of the West RPDRS8

In a moving article about this television show’s influence in and beyond the LGBTQ community, Atlantic writer Manuel Betancourt credits RuPaul Charles for illuminating drag as the art of self-love.

When Kim Chi stomps the runway in high heels, performing her anime-inspired Glamazon, the artist is embodying a self whose power and poise are every bit as demanding as the act of living one’s truth in the drag of the mundane world of bills and bigotry.

Desikachar suggests that yogis seeking shtirasukha begin by visualizing the perfect posture, getting a feel for it by imagining ourselves within it, steady and relaxed. Asana is practice; its aim is not perfection, its aim is being here, now, in the pose. We note instances of discomfort, of limitation–a distracted mind, a narrow range of motion–but we experience the fullness of what we can express in that moment.

What drag queens know better than most of us is how to perform an ideal self with grace and humor–to step into the illusion as a way to embrace and project an authenticity that others may not ordinarily see, and that they themselves may not see until they create it in the mirror. There’s a profound self-awareness to drag, an intimate knowledge of who you are and what you are making of yourself today, in this moment, in this mirror, on this stage. You hug in, stand tall, and release the breath of fire.

On Posing

Last March I stood on a boulder at the Cape of Good Hope: the sun was bright on my shoulders, the brisk waves of the south Atlantic ocean were breaking beneath me and as my heart and lungs expanded my limbs did too–my body and spirit were starting asana. Yoga for me is like dance–it’s training I’ve done for years and in profound encounters with nature I am moved to physical expression through asana in much the way that, as a little girl, I would twirl through the fields of rural New York. But an important part of my yoga is a commitment to asana as an inner practice, not a performance. More bluntly, it is about posing as posture versus posing as Posing.

So I stood on the rock, surrounded by friends with cameras who I knew would photograph me if I struck a beautiful pose, and I turned inward: I folded forward, then down into plank, giving myself a physical experience that would not be photographically interesting because I knew the moment I did something “pretty” I’d be distracted by the performance of it; I’d cheapen the moment. I nixed the once-in-a-lifetime Facebook shot on purpose. What’s unfortunate is that the pose I felt like doing, Camatkarasana, didn’t get expressed–my heart and limbs wanted it but I didn’t want an audience and more truthfully I think I was too worried people would think I was seeking attention. I didn’t want to be, or appear to be, a poser. So I resisted the pose. And I regret missing that moment. Perhaps it was meant to spark this process, this yoga, of self-examination: why am I so concerned about narcissism and narcissists and (ironically enough) about behaving like one that I would resist an authentic moment of self-expression?






“It’s too expensive”: On team teaching

If I were appointed U.S. Tsar of Higher Education I would require that all courses be team taught.  –Stephen Brookfield

Yesterday I crashed Steve Brookfield’s keynote address at the Transformative Learning Conference. I couldn’t attend the whole conference because I had too many teaching commitments on my own campus, but I couldn’t miss Brookfield. I’ve been working with his methods for ages–personally, collaboratively, locally, and even cross-institutional-longitudinally. I’m a critical reflection geek.

I didn’t expect him to dip into the topic of team teaching, and I was so glad he did. During the talk he invited the audience to use TodaysMeet (an anonymous back channel communication site) to record our reactions and questions and someone immediately responded: “team teaching is expensive.” I’m sure it’s what a lot of us were thinking, probably because a lot of us love to do it and have had to get really creative to make it a viable option. He said for him it boiled down to giving students the opportunity to observe critical dialogue in action: two experts with different perspectives exchanging views on a topic. In that regard, team teaching doesn’t have to necessarily be two faculty co-teaching all semester long. It could [more] simply involve a mutual agreement to visit one another’s classes, perform a critical dialogue, and include time for Q&A with students.

Of course, full-blown teaching involves much more than that. But what struck me was how rarely it happens even within a team-taught course. So often when faculty team teach they collaborate behind the scenes intensively but then take turns facilitating class or even just lecturing to class. I had to dig into my own memories of team teaching and think about how often my co-teacher and I truly carved out time to perform critical dialogue as Brookfield described. Not enough. At least not much as a planned event–and this most likely because I tend to not want to “perform” to students, I want dialogue to arise organically with me and with visitors to class. But Brookfield made a good argument, and he used the term “perform” quite deliberately. He said this kind of critical dialogue often becomes rather dramatic, even theatrical, and in a good way. When a student-centered pedagogy guru promotes this sort of front-of-the-classroom performance I think it’s worth seriously considering.

So I tried it a few hours later.

It was fairly spontaneous, actually. A colleague and I serve as our institution’s Learning Commons Faculty Fellows. Our responsibilities include mentoring the peer educators in our Learning Enhancement Center–she covers Math, I cover Writing, but we both integrate broader issues such as intercultural communication, learning styles, and so on. Her discipline is Education; mine is English. Yesterday we coincidentally prepared discussions involving the pros and cons of asking students to think aloud as part of a tutorial. My discussion was focusing on second-language learners of English, hers was focusing on students with learning differences. So I asked if we could take some time to talk through our disciplinary perspectives on think-aloud protocols and practices, to briefly replicate the sort of critical dialogue Brookfield recommended. We didn’t get theatrical but it was exciting for us and seemed to be a nice change in format for the peer educators. And I used some of my colleagues’ insights to modify a think aloud lesson I’d just posted to our course site.

I’d like to try it again but also to find more ways to give the peer educators the opportunity to engage in critical dialogues that draw upon their disciplinary and lived experience. I know sometimes, especially this late in the semester, they can feel relieved to have us perform so that they can just listen and respond. But I think once they got started they would be energized by the alleged drama of exchanging counterpoints on such topics as math and writing pedagogy.

Organizing critical dialogue performances doesn’t make team teaching less expensive, but it does give us an inroad to reflecting on when, exactly, it might be the most beneficial to have two faculty (or two experts from any profession or life experience) teaching in the same room, and in what ways.

This topic is also coming up as I work on an essay about participatory media. My writing partner and I are discussing the core concepts of story-work for a volume on digital storytelling in higher education and I’m increasingly mindful that the kind of learning experience we try to foster as co-facilitators of digital storytelling workshops depends on a teaching model that is “expensive” to replicate in the college classroom.

There are at least three main ways that expert co-facilitators can make a big difference in a digital storytelling workshop: (1) increasing the diversity of connection between facilitators and participants (which enables the facilitators to tailor the experience more sensitively, sometimes in ways that can ensure participants feel more safe and more meaningfully heard, as well as more productive and better guided overall); (2) more skillfully managing the invention process–during story circles and individually (helping participants identify, reflect upon, develop, distill, and complete a narrative that makes best use of the constraints of the genre); (3) supporting the hands-on making and public sharing of the completed project in a way that is successful to the participant. When the workshop is conducted as part of an academic course or assignment sequence, there will most likely be just one facilitator–the instructor of record–perhaps assisted by a student or staff member with some experience of storywork and/or relevant technical expertise. These kinds of help are valuable, but not a real substitute for the level and degree of attentiveness an experienced co-facilitator can provide.

Most of us doing this kind of teaching in college classrooms–or at least those of us who love it and include it repeatedly in our classes–believe it’s worth the effort even if we are unable to co-facilitate with a peer. We deputize current students, enlist help from volunteers, and so on, often with meaningful and even serendipitous benefits. But in FTE parlance (i.e., faculty workload), it is an “expensive” way to teach.

In my own pedagogy, I continue to experiment with ways to front-load or rearrange the process to figure out how I can reconfigure the workshop experience–by, say, making the media-production process more of a team-based learning session and the story-invention process a Bruffee-esque collaboration of knowledgeable peers. But while each experiment teaches me something new about classroom-based facilitation, I’d still always much prefer an expert co-facilitator, not for the big things that you might expect–not for the formal pedagogy or the writing conferences (though those matter a good deal)–but most of all for those subtle, in-between moments where I catch a skilled colleague smiling with a student, sharing a back story that informed the thing on the screen; catching the non-verbal cue of an anxious participant; saying something that needed to be said. When this happens it can make a world of difference in ways we may never fully know but can’t afford to miss.



On Representation

Penguins on the beach in Cape Peninsula, SA by Tricia Jenkins

Beach penguins at Cape Peninsula, South Africa. Photographed by Tricia Jenkins.

A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

The first time I read Emerson I was a teenager in college–more of a beach bum, really, enrolled in classes in San Diego but having trouble concentrating day to day. I liked how Emerson’s words felt as they drifted through my mind, his sentences like fractals, repetitive pulsations of insight. I would sit in the sand and look at seashells and think about how each one was a metaphor for lives lived and gone, leaving fragments of themselves strewn about, beautiful and broken.

The second time I read Emerson I was more ready for it. I was twice as old and studying rhetoric for a living. As I ruminated on his essay Language I realized that even though Emerson talks about nature symbolically, he isn’t using metaphor in the customary way. He isn’t just suggesting that we, for example, view a seashell as a symbol of death, nor even as a representative fact of life (even though he says that). Rather, he is suggesting that every seashell is Life, every seashell is the whole world. It’s not merely a “likeness” of the world (even though he says that too); it is uniquely significant all on its own, as a divine creation, and by studying it deeply enough we come to understand its infinite wisdom. The trick, if I can call it that, is to value the single seashell so much–to stay with it long after I think I’ve grasped its metaphorical meaning–to trust that it has much more to notice and ponder because that seashell itself contains everything.

So the American tourist goes to South Africa and sees penguins on the beach. First, let’s face it, she’s just gobsmacked to see penguins on the beach. In Africa. Second, she observes how the behavior of penguins at the beach is pretty much just like the behavior of humans at the beach: they’re all visitors, waddling around, lolling in the sand, cooly observing one another there–each as if the other species belongs somewhere else. Lots of metaphorical observations ensue, during which the tourists (human or penguin) come to represent keen insights about social dynamics or globalization or commercialization or whatever.

But all of that is too pat, isn’t it? It’s fun, but it’s smug. It’s the kind of insight a lot of us make every day, congratulating ourselves on our witty reading of a representative anecdote. It’s a meme.

If we really want to understand the metaphor, to deeply learn from it, we must start by taking seriously the thing itself rather than leaping to conclusions about whatever it may represent.

This is the lesson I learned in South Africa last week. My new Emerson is Karen Worcman, founder of Brazil’s Museum of the Person. She challenged us all to acknowledge that every person’s story matters not for the ways it represents some larger idea or trend or community but because it’s enough. A life lived matters. It is worth remembering. It is worth knowing. An individual life is enough because it is everything. It is the whole world.

As I return to my classroom tonight, to students whose mission is an oral history project with people representing (yep–I said that on the assignment sheet) different perspectives on the gentrification of the historic neighborhood near campus, I feel humbled, schooled really, and grateful to Karen for reminding me to have faith in the power of individual stories to teach us enough. To teach us everything. Here is the video I will use to begin that conversation in class: