Thursday, April 09, 2020

John Haines

I wish I had discovered John Haines sooner.

I am nearly 50 years old and only stumbled onto his writings a few months ago. I wish I had found  "The Tree" or "Poem of the Wintry Fisherman" twenty-five years ago. I want to think I would have been just as inspired by his writing then as I am now.  I want to think I would have felt the same connection and been inspired to greater works.  However, I am sure his words would not have had the same meaning for me. I was immature and felt unrooted.  I wasn't ready.  What I have now, that I lacked then, is a greater connection to "place."  I understand better how place--the small towns and big cities, the people and the land--have shaped me and my perspectives.

I love this excerpt from Haines' Living Off the Country:

"Poetry seems to have been a natural response to my living there [Alaska].  My first winter in the cabin at Richardson, unable for some reason to paint, I began attempting poems in which I could express some of my feeling for this place I was coming to know, amazed at all I was seeing and learning.  The poems were not, of course, very good.  They were hardly poems at all.  I had a lot to learn, about writing and about myself.  To really know the place, I had to live here, build here, become intimate with it and know it for a long time, before I could say anything about it that would be personal and distinctive.  It was nearly ten years before I wrote anything that satisfied me" (Haines, Living Off the Country: Essays on Poetry and Place, 1981, p. 11).

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I discovered John Haines at just the right time.  I have lived in my current home for the past 13 years.  Prior to that, I averaged a move every two years of my life.  I struggled to identify myself with the places I had lived.  It's not that I wasn't shaped by them, but I felt my identity wasn't connected to them.  Now, I have watched my children grow in the same home for the past 13 years.  I have made contributions to my community and made connections to the people around me and been supported by them in times of need.  This connection to place has awakened in me a greater awareness of other places from my past that, although fleeting, have shaped me.  So much of my life can be best understood within the context of the places I have lived, and more particularly the spaces I connected to.

Rediscovering Art

In 2016, I became the Dean of Students at Venture High School and in 2018 I moved into a principal position at Venture Academy.  The move into administration brought with it an increase in responsibility and work hours.  I still tried to maintain a sketchbook and draw or paint when I could, however, art was relegated to a lesser role in my life.  I don't regret the decision to move into educational administration.  It feels right and I hope and believe there is purpose for my service.  However, I've realized that I still need a creative outlet in my life, so I've made a more concerted effort to make time to draw and paint.  That means I've had to sacrifice time I used to spend on other things, but mostly that means I spend more time with a sketchbook and less time time watching Netflix or movies.  No, I still don't have time to complete any major works of art, but it feels good to sketch and to share my art with a larger community via social media.  Following are some of the drawings/paintings I've done over the past month or so.  I post new art more regularly on Instagram at @Wasden_art.  Feel free to follow.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Time for Edification

I don't normally share my personal views online, but today, the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak have compelled me to reflect on what is most important in life.

When I was young, I always thought there would be enough time . . . time to spend with the people who mattered most, to learn the things I wanted to learn, and to become the person I wanted to be. I thought there was time for me to postpone what was important in order to do things that didn't matter so much. However, here I am, almost 50 years old, and I realize there wasn't enough time then and there isn't enough time now.

In only a few short months, COVID-19 has killed over 80,000 people (and counting). That’s over 80,000 people who thought they had more time, and even more people who thought they had more time with those who have died.

Three years ago, my mom passed away in her early 70s from liver disease, and trust me, there wasn't enough time to talk with her the last few weeks of her life and to ask the questions I wanted to ask and to tell her the things I wanted her to know

In the past three weeks my cousin and my aunt both passed away due to chronic health issues. My uncle and another cousin had already passed away a number of years ago. Their family of seven has been reduced to only three remaining brothers. I know that those who remain will tell you, there was never enough time.

In my own life, as I get older, age is slowing me down and making it harder to achieve some of my goals. It's harder to stay active. Soccer games have been replaced with slow walks while I listen to podcasts. The mountain hikes I used to long for are becoming intimidating and I wonder if I am even capable of completing many of them. I've been lucky. My health has held up pretty well for most of my life. But I have loved ones who's health hasn't been so kind and medical issues have limited many aspects of their lives. Again, I know they will tell you, there wasn't enough time.

If, in my nearly 50 years of life, I have gained even a whit of wisdom that I can share with my family and friends, it is this: please do not squander the time that is given to you. Don't postpone that which is important in order to do that which is of no worth to you or anyone.

So, how do we measure that which is most valuable? Where should we spend our time? I say invest it where you will be the greatest benefit to yourself, to your family, and to your community.

Believe me, I know it's hard to turn off the video games or to stop binging on the latest series on Netflix--I have been as guilty as anyone--but we need to be willing to turn off the screens more often. We need to reduce the amount of muck we take in and worry more about the good that we give to others. We need to spend more time doing those things which edify ourselves and others.

"Edify” is an old word.  It originated around 1300 AD. It means to instruct, benefit, or uplift—to build up yourself and others. Personally I think that "edification" is the purpose of life. To me, it means we should strengthen ourselves—get an education, stay fit, develop good habits, etc.—so that we can use our talents and learning to benefit others. We humans are interdependent creatures. It is through collaboration and service that we achieve greatness and the only way we can do that is discover our own talents and strengths and use them for good purposes.

If you were to track all your activities throughout an average week, where would your time be used?  What purposes will you have served?  Two hours of video games per day (fourteen hours per week or 728 hours per year)? Two hours of TV each day? Twenty minutes of reading daily (maybe two hours per week or so)? Thirty minutes of service for someone else weekly? Maybe sixty? I don't think those are unrealistic numbers for many of us. But what do those numbers reveal? Where are our priorities? The way you use your time reveals clearly what is most important to you and what you desire most in your life.

As this awareness has become clearer in my own life, I have sought to make some changes in my own habits. In particular, I have focused on renewing my efforts to improve as an artist and to share my art with others. When I became a principal, I set aside drawing and painting in order to focus on my new job. I believed there wasn't enough time for the important activity of creating art, but the truth is, there was plenty of time. I just had filled it with not-so-important things like staring at Facebook or watching Netflix. Over the past couple months I have set aside more time to practice drawing, and I have been happy to see my skills return and improve. I still make time to watch a movie with my kids and to interact with friends and colleagues through social media, but that time is more focused and supportive of my goals, and I don't regret it. There's no part of me that is currently thinking, "I should draw less and spend more time on Facebook." They say it takes 10,000 hours, or about 10 years, to become an expert at something. Ten years from now, I hope I am an expert artist, an expert principal, and an expert husband and father.

So, let me restate my point: we do not have time to waste. We should strive each day to edify ourselves and each other. We should make sure that at the conclusion of each day we can evaluate the time we have been given and know assuredly that we have dedicated it to those people and those things that are truly important.