Telling Secrets (Josephine V. Signorelli, 8/5/1925 – 1/22/2017)

January 27, 2017

The following post is the final draft of the eulogy I delivered at my mother’s funeral service on Friday, January 27, 2017. The draft—as all drafts do—differs a bit from the spoken version delivered to the more than 100 friends, colleagues, and family members who gathered to commemorate all she meant to us during her long and richly rewarding life.

Let me share a secret with you. Josie was really concerned about how this was going to go. She and my father [who is still alive as of this writing] had attended so many funerals over the past several years, lost so many friends, that she had convinced herself that no one would be left to attend hers. She kept telling me she was worried that we wouldn’t even have enough people available to serve as pall bearers. Thanks for proving her wrong.

josephine-2012-08-05Our mother, wife, grandmother, great-grandmother, friend, parishioner, business colleague, confidante, and overall playground director had a thing for planning. She and Dad had this whole thing organized years ago, and occasionally revisited the arrangements to be sure that it would go smoothly and wouldn’t be burdensome for any of us. It’s the same way she led every day—every single day—of her life. She had a plan. Get up. Take her pills. Make sure Dad took his bills. Prepare breakfast. Eat Breakfast. Do the dishes. Take a walk. (During Lent, all of this would be preceded by daily attendance at Mass.) Clean the house. (God forbid she should leave home without having cleaned at least three closets, done five loads of wash, shouted “scat cat” at the neighborhood felines who were lounging in her backyard, baked 20 dozen cookies, and started a library. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit on those last items, but that amazing, upbeat Energizer Bunny of a woman could send the rest of us to bed to recuperate from extreme exhaustion for weeks after we listened to her describe what she had done before noon on any given day of the week.)

Her afternoons often included reading time—for herself as well as for the other kids in the neighborhood! Recitation of her daily chaplet. Making sure Dad was comfortably situated to take his nap. Talking with friends by phone. (She and my sister Carol apparently taxed the limits of the local phone company with their marathon conversations.) Getting dinner ready. And after dinner, she was back to reading, watching television, and, if necessary, starting another library. (Ever wonder why there are more libraries in American than there are McDonalds restaurants? Now you know.)

I jokingly focus on the library part of my mother’s life because I know the earliest memories my sisters and I have are of sitting with Mom as she read to us from library books. Making sure we understood where the Main Library in Stockton was and what day and time the local bookmobile visited our neighborhood. (I checked this with my sisters: we may have been the only kids in Stockton who were familiar with the term “Library Summer Reading Program” before we knew who Captain Kangaroo and Captain Delta were on our local TV stations.) She worked diligently and ceaselessly and lovingly to instill in us an appreciation for and commitment to lifelong reading and learning. And she carried that commitment over into the work she did here at St. Bernadette’s, where she introduced at least a couple of generations of the parish’s youngest learners to the mysteries of their shared faith.

st-_bernadettes_churchHer church and her faith were the foundations of her sense of community. You couldn’t be at St. Bernadette’s without seeing Josie Signorelli engaged in doing the weekly readings from the front of the church. Or working with her colleagues in the Ladies’ Guild to organize social events—this was a woman who was a social maven decades before social media came along—or serving on the parish council, or helping to count the proceeds from the weekly collection plates, or or or…we could spend the rest of the day today (and part of this evening) recalling all she did with and for The Church and not even begin to scratch the surface. But an important point to remember here is that her Church was her family, just as in many ways her family was her church. She honored them. She worked tirelessly for them. She loved them. She embraced them. She cooked for them—oh, God, you cannot think or talk about Josie without thinking about all she cooked. And she never wanted or expected anything in return.

josephine-at-st_bernadettes1So, Church as family, and family as Church: let’s hone in on what family meant to Josephine Signorelli and how her attitudes and actions touched so many of us. I believe her parents, her nieces and nephews, her cousins, and other members of her extended family were with her in spirit every day of her life—long after many of them had preceded her in death. In fact, I know many of them were and are—we just need to look around the church this morning and see two of her beloved nieces, Peggy and Donna, who flew in from New York to be with us when they knew Josie was about to leave us. We look up at the altar and see Father John Peter and Monsignor Moore—yes, Monsignor Moore, who was the pastor at St. Bernadette’s for 30 all-too-brief years and surprised members of our family two days ago by driving up here from Monterey to sit with us for a lovely afternoon conversation filled with comforting reminiscences and appreciations for all she did for all of us. We look around this church and see my father, my siblings—including those who, by marrying into this family, were embraced as sons and daughters, not as sons-in-law or as daughter-in-law. We see the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren, her church family, members of the business community who were like family to her.

My wife, Licia, made an interesting observation as a few of us were talking this morning: we often focus on my Mother, and all too rarely explicitly acknowledge the complementary halves of what our mother and father bring to themselves and to the world overall. As Licia noted: Josie was the sun. Paul Frank was and is the moon, fully reflecting and contributing to the brilliance that the sun brings to our world. And I would add this: all of us in this room—and many who are with us in spirit today—are the billions of stars, the constellations that shimmer in a dark night of the soul that will lead us to much brighter days together.

We are family. We stand alone and we stand together in numerous ways. If Josie leaves any long-lasting legacy—and let me assure you, she leaves a legacy larger than the state of Texas—it is the extended family, now spread out all over the country, that will convey bits and pieces of her to countless people who will never physically meet her, but will know somehow they have been touched.

She was unique. She was an inspiration. She was humble. She was persistent. And in the end, when she told us she was ready to go, she left as quietly and peacefully as she could. But she was wrong about at least one thing. She may have returned to the God in whom she so fervently believes. But she is far from gone as long as any of us continues to build upon all she did and cherished and loved.

January 27, 2017


ALA Midwinter Meeting 2017: The Stuff You Don’t Plan For

January 22, 2017

Anyone familiar with the richly rewarding experience of attending an association’s conference knows that the most precious gems often are those we don’t anticipate.

alamw17_logoWe fall into a business deal we didn’t even know existed. We see someone we didn’t even know was there and, as a result, rekindle a relationship. We learn about an innovation that directly and positively affects the work we do. We discover and quickly act upon opportunities to better serve the onsite and online communities we absolutely adore.

everylibrary_logoAnd that, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, is what has been happening for some of us here in Atlanta since the American Library Association (ALA) 2017 Midwinter Conference formally opened yesterday. I know, from the numerous intensively action-oriented conversations I had throughout the day yesterday and today and well into the evening hours, that there were abundant enticing opportunities—expected and unexpected—to pursue. Several colleagues and I, as a result of chance encounters, continued the conversations (inspired by our EveryLibrary co-conspirators) designed to help us identify and take positive, concrete, results-generating action in response to opportunities to build productive, meaningful collaborations between libraries/library staff members and other stakeholders in our extended, multi-faceted, tapestry-like onsite-online communities. These were and are not pipe-dream “wouldn’t it be nice” discussions; each of them ended with commitments to taking small-scale individual as well as collaborative steps that, when combined with similar steps within our extended communities, will lead to community collaborations with potentially far-reaching impacts. (The 2017 EveryLibrary Agenda, on the organization’s “Leaving Our Silos — Coalition Work in 2017” page, is a seminal online document that offers an opportunity to become engaged and is a wonderful call to action for those within the library world as well as to those who currently are not; friends and colleagues can expect to be hearing plenty from me about what this offers us and those we serve.)

signorelli200x300[1]But it gets even more personal. A wonderfully serendipitous encounter in the ALA Store resulted in another sale of the book Lori Reed and I co-wrote a few years ago (Workplace Learning & Leadership) and an impromptu, tongue-in-cheek book-signing for the buyer of that book. Which then unexpectedly led to a conversation about potential involvement in another results-oriented training-teaching-learning project scheduled to happen during the second half of this year. And, as if this were all being choreographed for the muse of publication, I then found myself involved in a conversation about writing a new book—a conversation that ended with a tentative agreement to pursue the project as soon as we can take care of all the elements that are part of codifying a formal contract leading to publication of a book.

The day continued at this frenetic, almost dream-like level well into the evening. More discussions. More confirmed opportunities for positive engagement with members of my ALA professional family. More reminders that, even in the most troubled of times, we never are really alone. And a reminder that the aforementioned precious gems often arrive when they are most needed.

For, in the midst of all this positive engagement, I was also fully engaged in that most horrible, inevitable rites of passage: the impending loss of a loved one.

The news that my lovely, vibrant, dynamic, inspirational mother—my lifelong parent, mentor, friend, confidante, and fellow chocoholic—is in the final days or even hours of life on the other side of the country was not unexpected. (A sign of how much I rely on her: after initially receiving the news that she might be in her last 72 hours of her life, I quickly ran through the short list of people I could call for comfort, immediately thought of her, and then found myself laughing as the words “Oh, wait, she already knows about this” ran through my mind.) She has been suffering from congestive heart failure for several months now, and the options for providing her with comfort and any acceptable quality of life have been dwindling rapidly during the past two weeks. Receiving “the call” from home shortly after I arrived in Atlanta was a nightmare emerging into a darkening day: she was back in a hospital emergency room, where my father and others were onsite to be with her during what a Franciscan friar I know once referred to as “the most sacred of times.” The subsequent calls involving arrangements for hospice care quickly followed. And then the news this morning, just before all the conversations and activities I’ve described in this post took place, that the hospice plan had been abandoned because treatment that might have offered her another 72 hours of comfort were failing. We were quickly reaching the point where we were counting hours rather than days.

When you have two parents who have led wonderfully blessed lives for 80 or 90 years, you’re always aware that each day could be the last. You go out of your way, as I have for more than a decade, to thank them every time—every damned time—you talk to them and let them know in very specific terms how grateful you are for all that they have given you. And yet “the call” is always as shocking as you know it’s going to be. Always overwhelming. And yet somehow manageable because you viscerally understand that, at that horrible and devastating moment, you are right where you were meant to be. Like here, in Atlanta, among some of the best friends, colleagues, and confidantes I have. Caring. Understanding. Sympathetic. And capable of shining sparkling-gem light where only darkness would otherwise seem to reign.

So I’ve had a day of precious gems that included wonderful stories from friends. Plenty of cross-country conversations that had me right there with my family even though we remain physically nearly 2,500 miles apart. Time spent working with wonderfully sympathetic and responsive United Airlines representatives arranging for an earlier-than-expected return to California. Positive paid and volunteer opportunities that I will be pursuing for months, if not years. Just as my mother and father always encouraged me to do. And as I prepare to try to catch a bit of sleep, I relish the bittersweet words a member of my ALA family shared during a conversation earlier today: It’s always the stuff you don’t plan for that has the greatest impact—for better or for worse.

[Deepest gratitude to my former writing coach/mentor Margo Perin, who always insisted that the best writing was that which was most difficult, honest, and drawn directly from the heart. This piece would not exist if she had not led me, nearly 20 years ago, through the process of working through a dark night.]

Addendum: In loving memory of Josephine V. Signorelli, August 5, 1925 – January 22, 2017. She lived and passed with grace.


AEJMC 2015 Annual Conference: Journalism, Supporting Communities, and Learning Online

August 12, 2015

There were plenty of intriguing juxtapositions for teacher-trainer-learners to observe and absorb last week while attending the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (AEJMC)  98th Annual Conference here in San Francisco—not the least of which was differing attitudes expressed toward serving audiences onsite and online.

AEJMC_2015--Logo[2]It’s a familiar and sometimes far-from-necessary either-or dilemma that exists in many of our contemporary venues—e.g., printed vs. online publication, onsite vs. online learning, onsite vs. online communities and collaboration—and often ignores the idea that looking for ways to blend those two proffered choices into something much more far-reaching and magnificent is sometimes (but not always) possible.

The context for the first of the two stimulating panel discussions was the topic “Who Will Serve the Civic Communication Needs of Cities?: Legacy Media, New Media and Community Discourse in Urban Life,” while the second, “The Experiment: Stopping All Print and Moving a College Newsroom Over to Medium and Twitter,” offered the compelling story of how a journalism instructor and her students transformed an unread print publication into an online multi-platform publication reaching a global audience.

Given the difference in focus—Civic Communication focused on the roles journalism plays in fostering community at a local level, particularly in urban metropolitan areas, while The Experiment was a success story drawing upon lessons learned by staff of the community college newspaper at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California—there was plenty to be considered for those of us interested in contemporary journalism as well as for those of us committed to providing first-rate training-teaching-learning opportunities to those we serve.

Iris-Chyi--Trial_and_Error--CoverCivic Communication was a spirited conversation involving moderator Gary Gumpert (Urban Communication Foundation) and five other panelists (Chris Barr, Knight Foundation; H. Iris Chyi, University of Texas at Austin; Sharon Dunwoody, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Peter Gade, Gaylord College; and Jan Schaffer, American University), so there was far from complete agreement. There was, however, a strong foundation laid during the initial parts of the conversation suggesting that media outlets are making a huge mistake if they ignore the power print publications play in fostering community—particularly at that mid-level metropolitan newspaper level of operation. Among the concerns mentioned by panelists were the short duration of visits to newspaper websites (4.4 minutes); research showing that information read online doesn’t stick with us the same way information read in printed publications does; and an overall sense that online content is “inferior” to printed content—what Chyi referred to as the equivalent of Ramen Noodles as opposed to more nutritious products.

Others on the panel suggested that the whole concept of “mass media” needs to be rethought as our online resources provide access to powerful niches well worth serving within markets/communities. Media today, one suggested, are networked, social, connective, and niche; the quality of the audience is every bit as important as the idea of reaching a mass audience—all of which suggests that journalists need a new “knowledge base” that allows them to engage with members of the communities they serve and to foster citizen participation within those communities. It’s a theme with parallels in our training-teaching-learning environments: we continue to seek ways to engage learners and foster learner-centric, learner-driven engagement that produces positive results within local, regional, national, and global communities through our blended onsite-online interactions.

sac.mediaMoving to the conversation within the Mt. San Antonio College session, we heard instructor Toni Albertson and student journalists Albert Serna, Talin Hakopyan, and Jennifer Sandy describe how they responded to their target audience’s preference for online rather than printed publications by taking the campus paper online across a variety of platforms—and how that affected their approach to identifying and covering newsworthy events. Creating “sac.media: College news without the ink,” the student journalists took on a newly-found enthusiasm for what they did, covering a variety of issues, including how journalism itself is taught and fostered. They also carried their publication across platforms including Medium, Twitter (through @SAConScene), and YouTube so they could give each story the attention and platform they felt it deserved. They also were—and remain—innovative in reaching out to their target audience: when promoting stories they believe are significant, each staff member identifies 12 potential readers who might be interested in that story, then uses Twitter to reach out to those readers—a nice echo of the Civic Communication panel discussion about the need for journalists to more directly engage with members of their communities. The result, according to Nieman Lab writer Dan Reimold, is “one of the most daring college media outlets in the United States.” And if any of us manages to learn from and be inspired by what those Mt. San Antonio college colleagues are doing, perhaps our own writing-training-teaching-learning efforts will be the better for our having encountered them.


Bob Herbert: Finding Inspiration Through Losing Our Way

January 28, 2015

Those of us involved in training-teaching-learning viscerally understand the power of a good story and the value of a good storyteller. So when New York Times columnist Bob Herbert left the newspaper in 2011 to accept a position with the public policy organization Demos, some of us felt as if one of the great storytellers in American journalism was vanishing—and that our world, consequently, would be a bit less vibrant.

Herbert--Losing_Our_WayHerbert’s writing in the Times was always strong, passionate, inspiring, and laser-sharp in its focus on stories that provided context and gave meaning to the overwhelming flow of reports that inundate us day after day. His final column (“Losing Our Way”), in fact, began with the observation “So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.” Those words provided a searing reminder to that learning, libraries, and involvement in the setting of public policy are integral parts of the overall responsibility each of us has to actively working to create the world we would like to have.

It’s a pleasure, therefore, to find that the storyteller has returned with a book that effectively and engagingly expands the thoughts included in that final New York Times column—Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America—and continues what he has occasionally produced via columns for Demos.

Losing Our Way focuses “most intently on four specific areas: the employment crisis, which was badly underestimated and poorly understood; the need to rebuild and modernize the nation’s infrastructure and the relationship of that vast project to employment; the critical task of revitalizing the public schools in a way that meets the profound educational imperatives of the twenty-first century; and the essential obligation that we have as rational and civilized beings to stop fighting pointless and profoundly debilitating wars,” he tells us in his introductory author’s note (p. 6).

As always, the real strength and value of what Herbert produces is in his attention to the human side of the story—just as so much of what we do in training-teaching-learning benefits from focusing on the human element of our efforts. We don’t, in Losing Our Way, find the typical unengaging diatribe against our failing infrastructure; we follow—and are moved by—the story of Mercedes Gordon, a woman who was driving across the I-35 bridge across the Mississippi River the day the bridge collapsed and sent Gordon and others into a plunge that shattered and took lives. We don’t find ourselves in another exploration of the financial cost of wars; we follow Dan Berschinski from the moment he loses his legs in Afghanistan, through the unexpected story of how he struggles to regain an incredible amount of mobility, and then muse, with Herbert, over the way the honoring of Berschinski for his achievements carries with it the deeper question of why “there seemed to be no collective sense that it was insane to allow the maiming of men like Dan…to continue so may long years after the attacks of September 11, 2001….What was the point?” (p. 169)

And when we move into the realm of learning, via an exploration of what is happening in our public schools, we don’t simply rehash the failed policies that, according to Herbert, have undercut rather than enhanced our educational system; we see how individuals including Jessie Ramey and Kathy Newman, in Pennsylvania, refused to accept billion-dollar cuts to educational programs and, through hard work, created partnerships that drew attention to the human cost of those reductions.

“The United States needs to be reimagined…” Herbert writes at the conclusion of his book. “Ordinary citizens far from the traditional centers of power…profoundly changed American society. Through sustained, thoughtful, and courageous efforts they…shifted the nation onto a better path. A comparable effort by ordinary citizens is needed today if the United States is to regain its great promise of fairness and opportunity for all” (pp. 245, 247).

ALAMW15--LogoAs I sit here in Chicago, about to join colleagues for a variety of discussions at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, I think about Herbert’s earlier references to the closing of libraries, about the challenges we face in providing effective learning opportunities, and about his call for reimagining the world around us—and I think I couldn’t be in better company to explore what training-teaching-learning, effective collaborations, and engagement in active communities of learning and communities of practice can produce.


The Boring Patient: Continuing to Learn With R. David Lankes

December 12, 2014

R. David Lankes, A.K.A. author of the recently-released The Boring Patient, is a very dangerous man.

Lankes--Boring_PatientIn everything he does, he casts out his line. Hooks us. Slowly reels us in without at all making us aware of what he’s doing while he is doing it. And then he does what he always does so well: he makes us learn in ways that transform the way we see the world we all inhabit. He is, in other words, the consummate scholar, speaker, writer, teacher, storyteller, library advocate, and so much more. But above all, he’s the sort of character Anne Lamott describes in Bird by Bird, her wonderful book about writing and the creative process: the type of character we would follow anywhere—even to the county dump. Or, in The Boring Patient, to doctors’ offices, hospitals, cancer treatment centers, and, at one point, to Disney World.

Written to share the experiences he had after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the book “is not about cancer. It is about my response to being diagnosed, living with, and being treated for cancer,” he tells us in the first few pages. “That is an important distinction because cancer is not funny. Cancer sucks. Cancer does not teach, cancer does not preach, cancer does not comfort, or inspire, or inform. Cancer kills.”

From beginning to end, this brief (138-page) book is a finely-crafted story that displays humor in deep moments of despair without in any way diminishing the seriousness of Lankes’s situation. He never loses sight of his well-honed ability to teach. He occasionally does (very effectively) preach—as is the case in the first sections of the book, when he addresses poignant yet no-holds-barred letters addressed “Dear Doctors,” “Dear Medical Students,” “Dear Heroic Noble Inspiring Cancer Survivor,” and “Dear Everyone Else” in a way that makes us want to buy multiple copies of the book and send them to every doctor and medical student we know. He invokes his wonderfully wicked sense of humor to recall how he and his wife had to comfort others who were finding it very difficult to deal with the life-threatening situations Lankes so often faced in spite of having been assured that those with Hodgkin’s had an extremely high recovery rate. And he continually finds ways to inspire us to find the reserves of emotional strength he found within himself through the support of his family, friends, and colleagues.

Lankes--Virtual_DaveThe cast of characters is far-reaching and well-drawn. We meet “The Bringer of Doom,” an oncology fellow so lacking in social skills that she coldly tells Lankes and his wife that he has Hodgkin’s, then immediately separates the couple so she can whisk him away for a bone marrow biopsy “as the lab was about to close.” The Bringer resurfaces much later in the book with an equally abrupt report on the state of his health that turns out to be emotionally devastating—and completely inaccurate. There are, on the other side of the spectrum of people we meet, the nurses and doctors who seem to understand that “[b]eing a good doctor means being concerned with my life, not what might end it.” Through brief, poignant passages, we meet his wife (Anne Marie) who becomes “Xena the Patient Advocate”—a reminder that the advocates in our lives are among the most valuable assets and resources we have, as anyone familiar with the American medical system knows before reading even a few pages of The Boring Patient. And we even meet Bambi the pole dancer, who accompanies him through some of the most trying phases of his treatment—but let’s not ruin the punchline here: you’ll have to read the book to learn more about Bambi.

Most impressively and importantly for those of us involved in training-teaching-learning, Lankes never loses sight of the important role he plays for his readers—the role of someone who makes information (i.e., information about what he has experienced) meaningful to those of us receiving it through the book: “Doctor, professor, teacher, librarian all can no longer believe that simply pushing information at someone and if necessary fixing it later is acceptable,” he says both as someone who received plenty of information about cancer and as someone who consistently encourages and inspires us to think about the role of information providers in society. “When I learn, when I am ‘informed,’ it is more than my memory and reason you affect. It is my emotions, my needs, my image of self” (p. 111).

And if we can carry that learner-centric view of what we do as information providers and facilitators of learning, we will have emerged from our journey with this not-so-boring patient the better for having joined him.


Learning Magic in Moments of Improvisation (Learning With Our Learners)

May 9, 2014

It’s far more than sleight of hand, this act of learning alongside our learners. It’s as delightfully magical for the way it occurs at the most unexpected moments as it is for how it rapidly produces small and large shifts in our own training-teaching-learning approach. And the stimulation that accompanies that level of collaboration in the learning process is one of the most consistently rewarding aspects of formal and informal learning opportunities we are likely to encounter, I was reminded again yesterday morning.

Oldenburg--Great_Good_PlaceI didn’t even, when the moment of magical learning began, know I was walking into a classroom; I thought I was actually walking into a neighborhood café—the sort of Ray Oldenburgian third placeThe Great Good Place—where we meet friends, interact, and walk away the better for having set aside the time for exactly that sort of encounter. But that morning quickly and unexpectedly turned into a far deeper and richer learning experience that a friend and I had expected to produce.

It began when I spotted the friend and sat at the restaurant counter to join her for a cup of coffee while she was eating breakfast. Commenting on how nice it had been to see her engaged in journaling as joined her, I inadvertently opened a door to a wonderful conversation about how she wished she had more time to write and how, more importantly, she wished she could find a way to combine her love of writing with work that produced an income.

“Want to play a game?” I asked. “It takes about two minutes and is a great learning exercise I know that helps people find what’s eluding them.”

Not wanting to skew the results or lead her in any specific direction other than helping her identify the sort of work that might combine her varied interests, I didn’t tell her that this simple exercise I had leaned in a creative writing class many years before had served me well in helping learners achieve a variety of goals including creating branding/marketing slogans for their personal businesses; crafting mission statements for their organizations; and even finding a name for a volunteer-driven community-based project that was so perfect that participants were still discovering lovely nuances in the name a couple of years after they shaped it. I also didn’t tell her that I used a two-minute time limit for the exercise because experience showed that most people and groups were winding down after 90 seconds and that two minutes was generally all it took to complete the most important element of what we were doing together.

Hearing her agree to accept the challenge, I told her to use her journal—I have generally used blank pieces of paper when working with individuals and paper on flipcharts or large whiteboards in classroom settings when working with groups—and take no more than two minutes to write down every word—no editing allowed—that came to mind when asked to think about the question “What makes me happy?” (When working on the mission statements, I’ve asked those learning the technique by using it to write down every word that came to mind when they thought about their organization; when working with those crafting marketing slogans, I’ve asked them to write down every word that came to mind when they thought about what concrete results they wanted to help their clients produce; when I worked with colleagues in the volunteer project, I asked them to think of every word that came to mind when they thought about the site on which the project was to be completed.)

Fountain_pens--2013-02-05I knew magic was about to occur when my friend/learner actually began jotting words down into her notebook even before I had a chance to start the timer on her smartphone. And it continued to take shape when I realized that, after 90 seconds, she not only was still writing as quickly as her hand and pen could place ink onto paper (with no slowdown in sight), but was also writing from left to right and top to bottom on the page rather than doing what every other learner had done before—simply throwing words helter-skelter all over a page or flipchart or whiteboard so the words could be grouped thematically later.

As the two-minute mark approached, I recognized I had my own unanticipated moment of leaning to address: stop the exercise as planned or respond to her obvious engagement and complete immersion in what she was doing by ignoring the timer and seeing where additional time would take us. After she finally raised her head five minutes and fifteen seconds into her wonderful stream-of-consciousness flow and asked if her two minutes were up, we both had a good laugh before beginning the process of reviewing what she wrote to see if she could spot meaningful connections between those apparently disjointed words and phrases. And as she read back what she had produced, I felt another moment of leaning magic unfolding: not only had she written down numerous nouns, verbs, and adjectives, but she had actually jotted down words reflecting what she was thinking as she wrote comments along the lines of “oh, this isn’t working” and “oh wait there it is.” Not only had she produced the most richly complex record of a learner’s thoughts I had ever seen in response to this simple exercise, but she had reminded me of something no trainer-teacher-learner can afford to ever forget: set the rules, then break them as soon as they become a hindrance to the learner’s learning process.

When we were finished with the review, she told me how helpful the exercise had been in identifying things she knew innately but hadn’t consciously acknowledged, and confirmed that she had learned enough to strike out on her own by returning to the results, running the same sort of exercise using individual words that resonated strongly with her from round one, and creating the sort of pithy summary of what would most appeal to her so she could try to match that statement with work that would reward her far more than what she currently does. And I, in turned, told her that the simple act of running that exercise with her and watching all that she produced had revitalized and freshened a tool I had long enjoyed—and now magically, unexpectedly, and inspirationally, would use with even more enthusiasm for learners who would never know how much that she as learner-teacher had contributed to their learning process—and a wonderfully adaptable tool to help them on their journey.


Standing With Our Friends (Part 2 of 2): I Watched You Disappear

April 25, 2014

That awful moment has again arrived: a cherished friend within one of the communities of learning that sustains me has lost a loved one.

I_Watched_You_DisappearIt was not an easy passing. My friend’s mother succumbed to pancreatic cancer during Easter weekend after all the usual pain, struggles with a health-care system that just doesn’t seem mature enough to adequately support those who are ill and those who love them, and numerous literal and figurative dark nights that never quite produced an obvious dawn.

But among the most stunning elements of this entire passage was the consistent reminder of what it means to be part of an extended onsite-online blended community in which friends stand with friends.

My friend—a fabulously gifted writer in addition to being an inspiring trainer-teacher-learner—was never at a loss for words, nor was she at any point reticent about sharing the most intimate details about what she, her mother, and others within her inner circle were feeling and experiencing. The moments of rage at health-care providers who seemed remarkably insensitive to basic needs. The moments of gratitude expressed toward health-care providers who were the onsite guardian angels. The emails and phone calls and social media postings. And the sharing of information that might be helpful to others in similar situations. All of these interwoven elements combined to produce one of the most moving invitations to celebrate a life well lived and mourn a loss I can imagine accepting.

The results produced amazing reminders of how interconnected we all remain in spite of all the ridiculous assertions we encounter that tech tools and other changes in our rapidly-changing world are somehow stopping people from communicating with each other at a meaningful level. Each time I read a Facebook post from my friend and then followed the dozens of responses from people I knew and from people I had not previously encountered (but came know through these exchanges), I felt my world broadening a bit and also understood that our ever-extending community was gaining the additional strength it would need to adequately support our friend, her mother and father, and others close to them. Every time I followed a link to read something my friend had read and from which she had taken solace, I found my own emotional connections to her experiences and her impending loss growing.

An afternoon during which she mentioned Anya Krugovoy Silver’s latest collection of poetry—I Watched You Disappear—was one of many turning points. A few lines from the title poem (“That fucking doctor killed you. Killed you./But I keep sending e-mails to your account.”) sent me racing to my local bookstore eager to obtain and devour a copy of what includes some of the most beautifully moving poetry I have read in years. Those lines opened a door to conversations my friend and I might not otherwise have had.

My friend’s post written on the evening of her mother’s departure (“Go rest high on that mountain, sweet Mama—your work here is done but will live on…She looked up at me, took her last breath, and was gone…”) put me right there with them in ways I would have never have expected to experience.

From "Virtual Dave...Real Blog"

From “Virtual Dave…Real Blog”

And a from-the-heart set of reflections (“Stand for Those We Miss and Love”) from one of my friend’s colleagues (R. David Lankes) posted earlier this week included passages so searingly poignant that I feel as if our collaborative endeavors over the past several months should once and for all silence anyone who disparages the gifts provided through effective use of social media tools: “I stand as someone who has fought with cancer and as someone who will remember you. Someone who says your life was important. I stand to remind those who remain that life can be hard. I stand to remind everyone that cancer takes and takes and takes. I stand to remind everyone that no matter how much we are loved, or how much good we seek to do, we all can be taken too soon.”

This evening, as I write these words I have been trying to compose for nearly a week, I find cause to celebrate even while consumed by the sense of loss I keenly feel. I celebrate the members of my various communities of learning who help me understand and appreciative what I have. I celebrate the depth of experience those friends reveal and to which they lead me. And I celebrate the importance of remembering we can never be too busy to take the time required to stand with our friends.


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