Getting Started

081715The folders will be filled and stacked and carried and laid out, one for each seat around the big table. Inside a blue sheet with phone numbers, policies and forms to complete, assignments, a bookmark, a poem. We begin the night with Mary Oliver declaring again, Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life? It is orientation, and around the table everything buzzes. They are here for the first time — excited and nervous, beaming to be seated there, peering at the door. You have earned your place, Amelia tells them. I had never been to college, Irene says. Now I am enrolled for six hours. My office is right down the hall, adds Adrianne. We want you to succeed, I emphasize. Empty pizza boxes at the back of the room. The kids singing songs down the hall. I hold up the books. Plato. Shakespeare. Anne Lamott. I am so excited, someone blurts out. I don’t want to talk over anyone else, says another. The room is too hot, then too cold. The markers are fresh. With seven minutes to go, Amelia says, Stand up! Turn around! Shake it out! And then we settle in before going. Afterwards one then another steps up to say thanks and see you Thursday. And J reaches for my hand. Thank you for making us feel so welcome, she says. And I remember again that’s all that matters.

August 17, 2015

Praise Song: Voting on Slips of Paper

042315How alive the vote when you cup one hand for privacy while the other writes. One name scratched on a slip of paper, folded tight, then held in the air. Praise the old coffee can that contains the choices. Praise how after nine shared months, there is affection, respect, and the wish for a voice to speak for all. Praise the act of unfolding each slip of paper in another room to tally, the counting and double-counting just to be sure. Praise Todd, who won the night, who will stand at the podium and do it right.

April 23, 2015

Gathered Around


If history is mostly the “usable past,” as David Lauderback asserted in our Free Minds second Saturday event, what will be usable from this day? I can’t know until I’m further into the future, but I might remember that we live in a time that exalts personal experience. (A blog of photos and paragraphs from my life, anyone?) Or that “Moonlight Serenade” was considered America’s second national anthem during World War II. I learned that there was once a national paint, varnish, and lacquer association, and they used Cold War fear to get people to paint their fences. And I was reminded, quite clearly, that the politics of the fear of terrorism are just the politics of the fear of nuclear obliteration, repackaged. But what may ultimately be usable to me, what might shape my future action, has less to do with historical facts and more with the mood of a room. An animated, smart facilitator. Students and community members gathered around a table. Conversation. Laughter. Connection. Because that’s what makes me return to create the next event, and the one after that.

March 14, 2015

All the Reasons

011515Sometime each spring, I ask Free Minds students to think back to what brought them to the program, the ideal or desire or need that got them to fill out an application, muscle through the selection process, and then stay committed through the academic year. The responses never cease to inspire me. Here’s this year’s board, created as the new semester dawns and 22 students return to the table to begin again.

January 15, 2015

Spring Semester and a Stack of Pizza

0112151Back in the classroom, we tell stories — some true, some not, and can you guess which? We talk one by one in a circle, then all at once. We hear of new grandchildren and engagements and a fully decorated Christmas tree moved in a truck. A cellphone almost swiped by a monkey. A root canal. When the lesson begins, bodies lean forward to listen. The pizza boxes, already emptied, will be taken to the dumpster later. The books, brand new, carried home to be read.

January 12, 2015