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August 29, 2020

For Every One

There was a time when I dreamed about living out of hotels. Staying in different cities and countries for as long as I liked, then picking up and moving to the next one. Always alone. Never saying much. Just walking around. My world always changing and fleeting and free. It's not a dream I give much thought to anymore. But I'd be lying if I said it didn't still fill me with a sense of warmth and reverie and desire. Not in any realistic way. Just in that impractical and romantic way of dreams. It's a dream I now keep only dimly lit inside, a fond memory of a different time, but also a reminder of another way it could be, another way that I in fact am. It's one of several of my emergency exits, a kind of backup life, should the one I occupy at present ever feel too unmanageable, too irreparable. I don't need to live it out, necessarily. I just need to know it's there.

There was also a time when any awareness of the life I'm living now (i.e. my then-future life) would have struck earlier iterations of me like an injection of straight joy. Living far from where I was born with a few genuine connections that nourish me while still allowing me the time and space I need to be alone. Having time for my personal endeavors and peculiarities and growth while also spending large parts of my days focused on others' personal endeavors and peculiarities and growth (i.e. being a teacher). I don't want to make that sound better than it actually is though. Teaching English at a Thai government school to seventh- and eighth-grade students is a road far too often riddled with unnecessary obstacles and messiness and incompetence and posturing and pageantry and all-out entropy. If you ever need an explainer on what it means to set someone up to fail, come to Thailand and teach English. Observe the students' and other teachers' situations and your own. Class dismissed. But beneath all the noise and disarray flows a kind of candied river. When you meet with hundreds of young people each week (I currently teach around 700), you open yourself up to assault. Some of those assaults are straight maddening. Some are just annoying. Some are humorous. But if you can stay separate from that surface-barrage, and not let the chaos become you, you might witness an incredible sweetness and basic kindness and human connectedness flowing through all things. All things are always present at once. The insufferable, the endearing, and everything in between. And this is true all over. It's not exclusive to Thai high schools. And with proper awareness, I have found, one can always choose which things to focus on, which rivers to ride, and which things to build one's days and life upon.

The connectedness is not limited to humans either. It extends to places and times, thoughts and things. It's in the air. That which moves around us; and that which moves in and out of us.

Earlier this week, I needed a break from the school's noise, and I found myself with a rare window of time with which to take it. So I sat in a familiar wooden gazebo at my school. After teaching at the school for around two years beginning in July 2017, and then leaving for about a year, I was asked to return this July, and I said yes. My schedule has been demanding, and for the past two months, I never once thought about that gazebo, where I used to spend much of my free time sitting, reading, thinking, meditating, and just taking a few minutes to myself (more or less; the students are never very far away).

As I sat there this week, covertly doing box breathing exercises and feeling a slight euphoria, I was reminded of the faraway time I sat there thinking about Douglas Harding's On Having No Head and a shaft of light fell on my hand, and I had a small glimpse in that moment of what could be (and maybe already was) my own headlessness, and then I took a photo. Modern technology tells me that was on January 17, 2018 at 8:57am ICT.

I've since thought a lot about this concept of headlessness (or as I've taken to calling it, "lessheadedness"). I'm still kind of baffled by it, but I also still feel a deep affinity to it that I can't fully understand or express. My meditation practice has moved forward. I've become mildly obsessed with breathwork. I've grown. Older, yes, but also just in general, on the inside, in ways less definitive. My students have grown too. It's a trip to see 12- and 13-year-olds become 15- and 16-year-olds. You probably know this already. But some of us need more time with these things. So much has changed, and so much has stayed the same, and none of it ever really stopped or started again. It all just kept going. And it all just keeps going.

Photo: Self-portrait, January 2018

Self-portrait, January 2018

Photo: Self-portrait, August 2020

Self-portrait, August 2020

The few quotes below are excerpts from things I came across this week that I wanted to share with young people. Because I teach English as a second language, each of these things is unfortunately too complex for many of the young people I work directly with. So perhaps you can pass this along to a young rebel or two in your life. And may he/she/they shine a little light on this Earth.

Brian Leli, August 2020

For Every One

is how it feels

How it feels
when that spirit thing
won’t stop
raking the metal mug
across your rib cage,
like a machine gun
fired at a church bell,
vibrating everything
irreverent inside.
Sounds like a prison
that only you
can hear
and feel.

And nasty things
are being said
about the prison guard-

that scared
oppressive part
of you


Jason Reynolds, For Every One

A Place Worth Being

Students will learn an interesting way to use descriptive language, and, for fiction writers, a way to build characters.

Students will write a personal narrative where they describe themselves as a place. Not a specific place, but all the things a “place” consists of. What’s the weather? What’s the terrain? Is this a city or a suburb? A farm? A different planet? Are there lots of people there? What’s it smell like? Is it loud? Is there traffic? Street vendors and hustlers? You get the point. Turn the body and mind into an environment through your writing.
This prompt also works in the inverse, where an environment can be described as a person.

826 Digital, Sparks

Cancel Culture

1. Are celebrities ever really “canceled,” or does negative attention actually bring famous people more fame?
2. Cancel culture is often called a political weapon. How is it used in this way? Can you think of any real-life examples?
3. Do you know the expression “Your past can come back to haunt you”? What does it mean? How can cancel culture affect an everyday person’s chance of being/staying employed?
4. Barack Obama criticized “call-out” culture, saying “If all you’re doing is judging others, that is not activism.” Do you agree?
5. Why does “freedom of speech” often come up in the cancel culture debate?
6. If you “unfollow” a cousin, aunt, or classmate because you disagree with their opinions posted on social media, is that cancel culture? Do you also cancel these people face to face?
7. The #MeToo movement held abusers accountable for their crimes. Is that cancel culture or social justice?
8. Has cancel culture turned us into a society that rushes to judgment?

ESL Library, Discussion Starters