I started my first blog in an internet cafe in Xinjiang. It was early 2004, I was teaching in a language school set up by a man named David, who was younger than I was, smoked a pipe and talked like he’d walked straight out of a 1930s movie version of England. (In fact, he came from one of the English port dynasties, grew up in Australia and went on to settle in China.) I was the first teacher he’d hired who wasn’t already a friend.
Everything about the experience was intense, and early on I began sending out emails to a list of friends back home, telling stories as a way to stay sane. Then I found a site where you could keep an online journal, so I told my friends I’d spare their inboxes and post my stories there, in case they wanted to go on reading. After a couple of months, I found that I was getting comments from people I’d never met. It’s hard to explain how strange and exciting that felt in 2004.
That memory came back to me as we were preparing the invitation to Homeward Bound, our first online offering from a school called HOME. This is an eight-part series which I’ll be teaching, starting on Thursday evening next week.
Besides the obvious transfer of a significant proportion of all human interaction to Zoom, several recent experiences convinced me that it was time to make this invitation, one which Anna and I have been mulling for a while.
First, in February I embarked on a six-month course led by my old friend Charlie Davies, entitled Clarity for Teachers. It made me realise what a charged word ‘teacher’ is, the power and the possibilities for confusion involved in claiming it.
If someone asks what you do and you say you’re a teacher, they will assume you mean in a school. It’s hard work, being responsible for classrooms full of children and teenagers. I’ve seen people broken by it, and I’ve seen people come alive in it. If you don’t belong to the professional body of qualified classroom teachers, then to call yourself a teacher could verge on the shady, like passing yourself off as a surgeon or a lawyer.
Among the group of us on Charlie’s course, there’s at least one with a classroom career behind him, but the others include the head of a national church, the head of a Buddhist monastery, a former naval officer and a ritual designer. It’s quite the crew.
During the first part of the course, we worked with a set of forty-two cards, each carrying a line from A Teacher’s Advice on How to Be Clear. This is Charlie’s reworking of a thousand-year-old Buddhist text, Advice from Atisha’s Heart, rendered in fiercely commonsense, modern-day English.
Because I absorb and process experience by writing – not much has changed since I was teaching in classrooms in Xinjiang – I began writing a more-or-less daily commentary as I worked my way through the forty-two lines. Since I started this in early March, it became my companion through the strange weeks in which the world slid sideways and so much else changed: one exercise I’d sit down to, usually at the start of a working day, that still seemed to make sense.
There’s so much I could say about where this led me. Not least, it means I accidentally wrote a book in two months, though it remains to be seen whether anyone will want to publish it! For tonight, I want to pick out a passage from one of the later commentaries, where I’m reflecting on the difference between what I do and what my friends who teach in universities do:
I work with words and thoughts, it’s a big part of what I bring to any stage on which I get asked to speak, and yet my favourite piece of feedback after a talk was the time my friend Ansuman told me, ‘What you said was great, but what mattered was the way you were.’ There is a song beneath the words, and if that song is not there or does not come through clearly, then it doesn’t matter how clever the words are, it’s all just noise.
Having spent two months in the company of this gang of irregular teachers, and writing about these lines of A Teacher’s Advice, this has brought me to a place of claiming my role as a teacher – and getting clear about the kind of teaching that has been increasingly central to my work.
In the way that sometimes happens when you reach a place of clarity and commitment, a series of messages then arrived in quick succession. First, when I shared that passage about Ansuman’s beautiful piece of feedback, I received an equally beautiful response from the artist and teacher Toni Spencer:
I remember vividly your day at Dartington last year. And the talk the night before. I can be pretty reactive when talked at for too long. Especially by a man, especially a white educated man, especially with big words and academic and literary references in there. But none of that reactivity happened. We were all there in it together. I kind of didn’t notice. And you facilitated something so simple (which gave plenty of space for everyone’s voices too) and with a quiet magic. It made me smile how I couldn’t quite see how but didn’t care!
Then it came time to deliver a guest lecture at the centre at Uppsala where I have been a frequent visitor in recent years, except that this time I was to give the lecture over Zoom. Now, because I live in a small city in Sweden and work with people around the world, I was an experienced Zoomer before most people had heard of it, but still I was unprepared for how rich and lively and intimate the experience of teaching to twenty students over this platform turned out to be. The course leaders let the session run half an hour over because the questions and discussion were flowing so beautifully.
Afterwards, I was shaking my head. ‘That felt better than when I go there and teach in person,’ I said to Anna. Apart from anything else, this seems a pretty damning verdict on the physical and social construction of the spaces in which we usually gather for academic teaching, because in years of editorial meetings and family calls over Zoom or Skype or Hangouts, none of them ever felt better than it would have been to be together in person. ‘Maybe it’s time I made an invitation to that online course we’ve talked about.’
Two nights later, in the kitchen, I brought up the subject again.
‘Well,’ Anna said, ‘are you going to do it?’
So here we are.
I’ve been reading Mark Boyle’s book, The Way Home, about his year of living ‘without technology’. When I say reading, I mean listening to it read by an Irishman with a lovely voice, on my headphones, using the Audible app, on the smartphone that is one of the great love-hate relationships of my life.
I remember crossing paths with Mark a couple of times, around the time he became The Moneyless Man. I can see him bounding onstage at a new media awards ceremony where members of the Freeconomy Community had organised to vote themselves ‘the people’s choice’; there’s a photograph of him at the first Dark Mountain festival, delivering a speech to crowd on a mound outside the venue, in solidarity with those who objected to paying money for a ticket. It’s quite a messianic image.
I’ll admit, back then his zeal set me on my guard. I’ll buy that money is the root of many of our evils, but not all of them. But there’s much in his writing and his example these days that I admire, and it seems a good book to spend time with, as we embark on the proposition of offering something of the heart’s work of this small school of ours through the unsettling miracles of instant global communications systems.
In a conversation with William Wardlaw Rogers, not long ago, the pair of us landed on the thought that the technologies in which many of our lives are swathed just now might be used as scaffolding. It’s a humbler role than the one afforded them in the grand narratives of technological progress. Much of the best of what I’ve seen these technologies do over the years has been a kind of compensation for the damaged social and cultural landscape of our heavily-monetised societies. The danger is that such compensation numbs us to the accelerating damage that surrounds us. But sometimes, perhaps, we can turn them against their own logic. We can use them to build a house worth living in, a place worth calling home. And when the house is built, the scaffolding can be taken down.
Meanwhile, perhaps the way to hold the contradiction is the one recommended by Ivan Illich: ‘Only the gratuitous commitment of friends can enable me to practice the asceticism required for modern near-paradoxes, such as renouncing systems analysis while typing on my Toshiba.’
I can’t imagine how my six months in Xinjiang would have been, if I hadn’t had that online journal as a window to lean out of and throw words to friends and strangers, although part of the answer is that my Mandarin would have come a lot further. I can’t imagine how my life from that point onwards would have gone, without the friendships and connections that began in online spaces, and the ways that we used those tools to dream up projects and make them happen.
This time last year, I spent a day in Doncaster with Warren Draper, first at Bentley Urban Farm, and then at the shop from which he and Rachel Horne have run Doncopolitan magazine. There aren’t many people whose work is as close to my heart as the work that Rachel and Warren have done over the years, and I’ve had glimpses of how much of a struggle it has been, how wearing it can be, the ground-level making of culture in and with and by communities that have borne the hard end of forty years of neoliberalism and deindustrialisation and the rest, where what funding there is rarely trickles down to the local culture-makers. But though I’ve only spent small handfuls of time with them over the years, every time I’ve come away inspired.
As I walked back to the station with Warren that afternoon, I felt a touch of sadness. I said something like this: ‘I’ve seen you put the last ten years into building the magazine and the shop and the farm, in a place you can call home, and the work matters to so many people here. I’ve put ten years into building Dark Mountain and the rest of it, and it matters to a lot of people, but they are scattered across the world.’
Someday soon, all being well, this school called HOME will have a place to call home, and Anna and I will enter a time when there is more possibility for rooting in our lives than there has been.
All will not be well, of course – except in the mysterious sense of those old words that Julian of Norwich heard in her vision: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ These days, I am surprised at how directly I feel old words speaking to my heart.
Yet even with all the things that will not be well, in any ordinary sense, we will go on making a home that offers what shelter and hospitality it can, as long as we are able.
My hope for those of you who are able to join me, a week from now, in the strange in-between space of these online encounters, is that it’s possible to offer you something of that hospitality, in the words we share with each other and the song that runs beneath them.
For details of future Homeward Bound series and other courses and events, visit the website for a school called HOME.
If you’d like to learn more about Charlie Davies’s work around clarity and teaching, visit his How To Be Clear website.