Rivendell Writers’ Colony: Cultivating Creativity

Rivendell’s Third Floor Studio with fog threatening to invade
“Rivendell seems to stand less as something built on the Cumberland Plateau than something pulled up from within it.”

Just outside Sewanee, Tennessee, a large, beautiful stone house called Rivendell sits just off the lip of the aptly named Lost Cove, an enclosed cove where all the water that falls within its boundary drains into a sink hole. Lost Cove lives in the imagination of all who have visited it and seen its landmarks: Natural Bridge, Buggy Top Cave, or Big Sink. Rivendell, a name drawn from the vast imagination of JRR Tolkein, seems to stand less as something built on the Cumberland Plateau than something, with its local Warren Point Sandstone exterior, pulled up from within it. The gift of the place to writers is inspiration; its danger is nostalgia, particularly for someone like me who has known it since I was eighteen years old, several days into my freshman year at Sewanee in 1983 when I found myself out there shooting skeet off the bluff as the coming evening dark climbed the eastern slope across from us. 

Screen Shot of Lost Cove detail from USGS Sewanee Quad Topographic Map (Rivendell is toward the middle on the left side. Big Sink is at the bottom middle).

Rivendell is now the home of the Rivendell Writers’ Colony, and I spent Spring Break there working on revisions to poems, while sharing the house with three novelists (Heather Jones, Nathaniel Popkin,and Jackie Zakrewsky), a short story writer (K.K. Fox), an artist and screen-writer (Rachel Kice), and a poet (Adam Vines). It was an extraordinary experience during which I was hugely productive in my work and deeply inspired by the the writers who were there. [I tried to spot the best link for each writer with varying success]

I am pretty good at keeping the different parts of my life separate. Interestingly, this blog, Ross All Over the Map, gives me a space where the different corners of my life–from education to photography, from poetry to folk art, and from music to travel–can mix, or at minimum share the same platform. Since my arrival at St. George’s in the summer of 2015, virtually all my posts have had relevance to my work as Head of St. George’s Independent School; however, when the blog began several years ago when I was Upper School Head at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, I tended to let it go wherever my thinking led me. Today’s entry is reminiscent of that original generalist edge.

View out the third floor window

While I was in Atlanta, Westminster and the Poetry @Tech Program at Georgia Tech worked together bring poets, Richard Blanco and Ron Smith, to Atlanta.  Because of that effort, I met Travis Denton and Thomas Lux who together led Poetry@Tech (Travis remains in that role, while Thomas passed away early in February after battling cancer. You can find his obituary in the New York Times HERE). I have been fortunate to stay connected to Travis. A dedicated teacher and a fine poet, Travis has helped me work through my own collection of poems, tentatively titled, The Kiln. He is generous and kind, and he is a scrupulous and demanding reader–perfect. In fact, the challenging nature of his comments regarding my work led me to recognize the need to head to Rivendell in order to provide the sustained attention for which the poems were starved over the last couple of years as I started a new job.

My time at Rivendell reminded me of the vital importance of quiet time, as well as attending to my interests beyond school. Interestingly, a March 17 piece in the Harvard Business Review titled, “The Busier You Are, the More You Need Quiet Time” echoes this idea. That piece ends with this thought: “The world is getting louder.  But silence is still accessible—it just takes commitment and creativity to cultivate it.” I find that in order to be my best for my work, I must allow for this sort of “cultivation.”

So I will continue to work on poems, and I will finish this collection, and I will move onto something new (I have a couple of ideas…). For now I am looking forward to my next conversation with Travis to discuss the current state of The Kiln. I am also looking forward to school today.

[One unexpected and exciting outcome of my time at Rivendell was that on our last night all together, each of the writers read some things that we had either written or revised while there. To have the opportunity to hear such fantastically creative work still in process from such talented writers was a particular treat. Adam Vines, a fine poet (see “Lures”) and the editor of the Birmingham Poetry Review, generously asked that I send him a few poems after I read. As a result, one of the longest poems in The Kiln will be included in the Spring 2018 BPW issue.]

Stretching the Rubber Band in a Progress Culture #tbt

In November of 2011 I wrote “Stretching the Rubber Band on a Progress Culture.” As the second installment of Ross All Over the Map #throwbackthursday, this one comes back to mind for me quite often as I reflect on how schools can become best equipped to move forward strategically. The rubber band metaphor has held up for me as a way to conceptualizing healthy progress in an institution.

On the knobs to the medicine cabinet, poised to make the nose dive into the toilet if my hand knocks them on the way to the aspirin…on the coffee table peeking out from under the magazines and books…on the floor under the couch…in the corner of the kitchen counter grouped in the eddy where keys and purses and ball caps wind up, RUBBER BANDS, specifically hair bands, are all over my house. 

Since they play no practical purpose in my own life, I tend to think about them metaphorically.  This is the sort of thing English teachers do when faced with a reality. My daughter—a hair-banded whirlwind of activity—often reminds me, giggling as she speaks, that I am bald. Strangely enough, when she does this, I both love her more and have a fleeting desire to sell her to the circus.

So…how can rubber bands help us understand what a Progress Culture will look like in a school?

Some school communities/school cultures seem surrounded by walls.  Membership is predicated upon sharing a tightly defined set of static customs and expectations—they are built for continuity.  I think of the Cardinals that meet in order to choose a new pope upon the passing of the Catholic Church’s leader. This gathering has changed little if at all over the last few hundred years—clearly one of the ways it defines its success is by the extent to which it has not changed its operation.  Schools that share some of these characteristics experience change glacially if they experience it at all.

The opposite of a walled community/culture is one that can quickly disappear within the larger cultural context in which it exists.  It is loosely organized and the factors that drive it are as fickle as wind.  Not only does it not have walls, but the bonds it encourages are likely to be so loose as to be easily broken. For a school, the idea of quickly disappearing is hard to envision; however, schools that seem to reinvent themselves according to the whim of constituents are numerous.

While the walled school community/cultures denies the existence of the tide, the wall-less community/culture is washed up and washed away by it. In a school with a Progress Culture, I see a third option. We need to create a school culture that is held together by a rubber band.

In order for progress to occur in a school, the strategic resolve, the entrepreneurial thinking of a faculty member, or the initiative of a student must be allowed to get ahead of the institution temporarily. Having participated in conversations at several schools about what language we will write that will describe the truth of the school and the aspirations of the school simultaneously, I have found that the tension between what a school is and what it desires to become is prerequisite to any lasting steps forward. To be a Progress Culture, we need vision, faculty members and students to get ahead of us, but not so far out in front that the bond that holds the community together is broken.

A Strategic Plan, a vision statement, an individual, or a small group can stretch the rubber band away from the larger group.  As it stretches, tension builds.  In the context of a school, that tension comes out in the form of hard questions—what does this mean for me? Will this diminish the desired outcomes of the school? Who will not choose to stick around to see how all this turns out?  How will this affect what we already do well?  Once the tension in this rubber band reaches a certain point the groups have to pull back together.

But which side will move first and where will the two sides meet? These are the questions that determine institutional resolve.  If the people and ideas that got out ahead of the culture/community must do all the moving back, the school will have a difficult time being believable the next time it invites community members to stretch the rubber band, and the right next steps forward will be missed.  If the established community/culture does all the moving forward, there is risk that the school will lose things of substantial value in their move to reduce the tension in our rubber band.

The good news is that when both sides engage this process thoughtfully and earnestly, a school can take great strides forward, while not sacrificing what should never change.

Differentiating Traditions From Bad Habits #tbt

In 2011 while working at The Westminster Schools, I wrote a piece titled, “Differentiating Traditions and Bad Habits.” I was reminded of it this week as I have been spending some time during our Spring Break near the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, which also happens to be my alma mater, as well as the seat of some wonderful, often eccentric, traditions. Some of the traditions are in fact atavisms in the world of higher education–for accomplished students the wearing of academic gowns fits this bill, for instance. Sewanee is steeped in tradition and, like all institutions, it has been hampered by bad habits masking as traditions.

In independent schools, we are susceptible to the dangers of confusing the two as well. Virtually every school, no matter its history or position, faces challenges in this arena. With this in mind, I am posting my first #tbt blog post from 2011 below:

differentiating traditions from bad habits

I have been thinking today about the difference between traditions and bad habits in schools. It can be so difficult to distinguish between the two that we don’t even try to untangle them from the larger cultural fabric of the school.  But we must try to do exactly that. It may be helpful to think of it this way: imagine that every school has a ledger that marks the long-term debt of bad habit against the revenue of tradition.  My fear is that an audit of that ledger in many of our institutions might reveal that bad habits are costing us more than we choose to recognize.

We are drawn to bad habits—they can be seductive, and we often provide them cover by calling them traditions. Bad habits give institutions practice in the arts of rationalization and self-deception. While traditions bring us together in ways that allow us to reveal our individual best as well as the best of the institution to which we are attached, bad habits are more likely to bring us together in a co-dependence that allows us to repeat myths back and forth to the point we think they represent truth itself.

As we engage the conversation in my school regarding how to become a sustainable Progress Culture, it is necessary to identify the real traditions and thus be ready to preserve them against all comers. It is equally important, however, to spot the bad habits masquerading as traditions. Sometimes what we call traditions are really only atavisms stifling our thinking. And dangerously, in order to preserve such bad habits, we siphon resources—financial resources, as well as resources of good will—away from innovation.

Perhaps the worst of our bad habits in schools is our tendency to tell ourselves what we can’t do (or what our constituents will never accept) even when we believe there may be better way forward than the way we have always done things. In so doing we limit our influence, and we diminish our ability to lead.  Conversely, if we work diligently to break this bad habit and drive it out of the school, we will extend our influence, and we will increase our ability to lead.

 

“Education is What Remains”: A Cum Laude and NHS Induction Talk by Dr. Amos Raymond

Dr. Amos Raymond

[It is just about Spring Break here at St. George’s Independent School. You can feel the momentum pulling us toward a well-deserved time away from school before the run toward the end of another school year. Before we let completely go though, we had our Cum Laude and National Honor Society Induction Ceremony on Thursday to celebrate outstanding students, as well as to celebrate the role of scholarship in our school. We were fortunate to have Dr. Amos Raymond speak to our assembled Upper School community. Dr. Raymond is a former Board member at SGIS, and it was in that role that I got to know him a bit. Here is the introduction Tom Morris, Upper School Director, provided in advance of Dr. Raymond’s reflection: 

“For the past decade, Dr. Raymond has maintained relationships with multiple medical facilities and is currently devoted to the Veterans Affairs Medical Centerand Lakeside Behavioral Health. After finishing his undergraduate degree in biology at Emory University, Dr. Raymond completed his medical studies and graduated from the University of Tennessee-Health Science Center College of Medicine. In addition to his practice and medical consulting, he serves on the advisory boards of both St. George’s Independent School and Hope House, the only facility in the state of Tennessee designed to meet the unique needs of HIV-affected children by addressing their educational, social, psychological, and health needs. His deep passion for young people and education led him to create an educational program called Urban Whiz Kid,which strives to motivate students to take charge of their educational endeavors. Dr. Raymond and his wife, Chevida, have two daughters, both of whom attend the University of Memphis Campus School. The family is active at Coleman Avenue Church of Christ.”

Dr. Raymond is a wonderfully thoughtful and caring man who has led a professional life dedicated to the health and well-being of others. I aspire to have much in common with him. I have copied his remarks below.]

I want to first thank all of you, the steadfast and selfless Board of Trustees and Head of School, Ross Peters for this very special opportunity. In particular, Ross, you are a smart, heady but well-measured and compassionate educator who’s presence is greatly valued and appreciated by the St. George’s community.

I am even more grateful for this immense privilege in sharing a few words with you students in this National Honor Society Cum Laude Induction Ceremony.

It is Albert Einstein that inspired my words today and in this spirit, I open with a profound and befitting quote: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” Our life’s journey is indeed our true path to learning.

Some have said that we are taught, educated and placed in a classroom for the first 25 years of our lives, then we work for 40 years and then we live the remaining 10 years or so of our lives, relishing in our golden years, riding off into that proverbial sunset. Well, this over-simplification of our life journey leaves out the many colorful stories of family, relationships, adventure, misadventure, love, laughter, grief and the exuberant feelings conjured during an awesomely plain game of stickball or handball.

Growing up in Brooklyn holds for me so many meanings. They all are significant though some more than others but if I may, this badge that I have carried with me has ultimately shaped me into the individual that I am today. I am the sum of all of my experiences, good and bad. My upbringing in an immigrant household and community, my fondest recall of my teachers and classmates, my introduction t0the violin in the 4th grade and even my rough and tumble experiences have all chiseled me into this God-fearing, emotionally intelligent and sentient being. Back to the quotation… “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

Albert Einstein was a German born, Jewish theoretical physicist who influenced philosophy of science and also credited for the theory of relativity, yielding probably the most widely recognized equation in the world, “E=MC2”. However, a few highlights of his incredible journey affords us an opportunity for reflection.

He was forced to leave his home in Germany and formally renounced his citizenship during Adolph Hitler’s rise to power. Believe it or not, his cottage was raided and seized by the Nazis and converted to a Hitler Youth camp. Despite being politically left-leaning and a pacifist, Einstein is on record for having written a letter to President Roosevelt, urging that the US look into Nazi Germany’s efforts in making advancements towards building an atomic bomb. By way of well executed machinations, this resulted in the birth of the famous Manhattan Project.

Albert Einstein was also known for his stance on civil rights in the mid 1900’s. He openly spoke and wrote against racism in the US where he regarded it as America’s worst disease handed down from one generation to the next and that those who bought into such ideologies “suffer from a fatal misconception.” He was a member of his local NAACP chapter in Princeton, New Jersey, had close ties to W.E.B Du Bois and received an honorary degree from the Historically Black College, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

Albert Einstein was also instrumental in founding Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was friends with Charlie Chaplin, Niels Bohr, the Bengali polymath & winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Tagore and other luminaries and intellectuals. He loved music and was an accomplished violinist where he played chamber music with well known ensembles of the time. J. Robert Oppenheimer, a fellow theoretical physicist, reported in a 1965 lecture that many of Einstein’s early writings were peppered with errors which helped delay the publishing of some of his work for nearly a decade. Imagine that, the genius’s writings had flaws.

Will Rogers said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” #aintthatthetruth

By no means have I completely chronicled Einstein’s life, but I believe imagining the full dimensions of his personal journey, one can see how it may have shaped him into the historical icon that he is.

My medical studies and training span a host of topics which include anatomy, pathophysiology and pharmacology. I have studied long and hard. I am well equipped and empowered to diagnose and treat a patient dying from the ill effects of a heart attack, but what I have keenly learned was how to calm the excited and frightened patient or temper the frenetic medical staff as the environment in the emergency department will most times seem uncontrollable.

Another example of an incredible man and their journey was The Apostle Paul. As we know it, he was no saint in his prior version of himself. In fact, this son of a Pharisee and tent maker was a staunch opponent of the Christian people during his time as Saul. However, his notable road to Damascus led him down a path of mutability. With the help of Ananias and faith, Saul became Paul, a fervent follower and advocate of Christ. By far, Paul is considered the most prolific author of the New Testament. His journey was long, arduous and ultimately led to martyrdom. Again, attempting to understand the fullness of his journey and to encourage you, I will read the KJV of Philippians 3:13 &14: “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” You all will traverse the many long and arduous roads, prudently navigate the forks, decidedly make headway towards your goal and along the way, you will learn.

 

As you all are being groomed as life long learners, it is with the God gifted ability to think and learn will you all forge paths, relationships and the soul of your fellow brothers and sisters. I want to congratulate each and every one of you on your journey as all of you will find your own special paths.

To those of you who finds yourselves…Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude, Summa Cum Laude and lastly, Thank You Laude…Congratulations!

Cum Laude Inductees
National Honor Society Inductees