A Commitment (The Way)

It is on.

The past four months have brought me to a personal and spiritual challenge. There are days where I feel a deep sense of peace, where reflection and a pause to life’s hectic schedule has been provided to me. Then there are days where frustration, confusion, and a deep sense of powerlessness overtake me. Days where there are too many questions to ask and not enough answers are provided. Moments where I observe the world and individuals whose actions make me ask, “where did we go wrong?” Where did a sense of helping others get lost in selfish foolishness. Mixed messages that individuals who claim they are righteous and living a life of faithfulness are instead evidence by deep felt sense of anger and resentment where personal wants are greater than community needs. The past four months have provided me a test. A test that I have spent days and hours reflecting on and trying to understand what is next in my life. Where should I go and how can I know that when this ends, I have changed to become a better, more enlightened person?

This past week, I turned 52 years old. I am in the initial years of the second half of my life. I feel that at 52 years, I have a keen sense of where I came from and what my life in its earliest years has provided to me. I have grown a great deal and matured into what I feel into a person who is deeply reflective, tremendously loyal, and eternally curious. I guess you can say, I really do like who I have become at 52 years. There is more to develop.

This brief post on my blog is a commitment. A commitment to do something that during these four months I have done a great deal of contemplating and questioning. I will commit to lead myself to a spiritual quest. A project that will be part of my new scholar identity. A study that will hopefully address an issue that is an area of concern in my professional life. An opportunity for others, especially those close to me, to join me and to support what I truly believe will be a life-changing adventure that celebrate the healing of our world and mark the next phase of my career and life. This commitment has been in me for more than 10 years and now is the time to act on it and to develop a framework to complete it.

Recent book purchases to learn more about The Camino de Santiago (aka “The Way”).

I plan to walk The Camino de Santiago by 2024-2025. During this four to five year period, I will prepare myself for this journey. I will grow my spiritual identity by studying further Benedictine teachings and reading more on what it means to live a spiritual life. I will develop research and frameworks based on these studies to apply in higher education leadership and higher education student affairs administration, addressing what it means to have a “calling” to work in an educational and service-related profession. I will use what I learn from my scholarly work to understand the identity of being a “pilgrim” – someone who embarks on a quest. For me, the intersections of my personal, spiritual, and scholar self will culminate into my quest to walk The Camino.

At this time, I do not know which route I will walk, but I do know that I want to walk. Today, I do know for certain that I want to walk with the goal to receive a Compostela, a certificate signifying that you walk the last 100km of The Way to the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela. Knowing that my journey will include such a feat of endurance, sacrifice, and wonder will culminate this journey.

As you can see in the image above, I have started my initial education on walking The Way. Starting with the basics, such as travelogues and advice and tips books, I will increase my learning on The Way by reading memoirs and eventually history accounts on The Way. As part of my understanding of the pilgrimage, I hope to develop what I am calling a “mini-sabbatical” for summer 2021. As the world hopefully heals, I am planning to spend reflective and meditative time at St. Meinrad’s Archabbey in southern Indiana. I have already inquired on a retreat discussing St. Benedict’s The Rule and hope to spend a week, possibly two, writing and studying spiritual texts. Ideally, I would love to develop a research study possibly conversing with any of the monks regarding spirituality through work, which is the motto of Benedictine monks – ora et labora.

My current reading list on spirituality

Lastly, I have joined a private Facebook group where pilgrims who have walked The Way, who plan to return to walk again, and those who plan to walk soon, converse and share advice and tips. There is also a group where pilgrims meet in-person to create community and to provide guides and support (spiritual and personal). At this time, these groups cannot meet but I do hope to join the Houston chapter of this group soon.

This is my commitment. I will walk The Way within the next four to five years. I hope to fulfill this commitment and to make this an experience that marks my maturing life. I foresee this to be a pivotal journey, one that cannot be rushed. Thus, my four to five year plan is akin to what I see as another “degree” – an education that cannot be gained from any university or college. I will learn through my own readings, my deep critical thinking, and most importantly, messages that I will receive in various forms – nature, human observations, friendships, selfless acts, and most importantly, callings. Where these come from and when they will occur, I cannot predict. I can only know that when they arrive, I should appreciate them and accept them as ingredients for this journey – my project.

I see this also as an open invitation. The Way is not meant to be a journey of solitude. In fact, one of the things I look forward to when I act on this commitment is the opportunity to meet other pilgrims and walkers from around the world. The Way is a communal experience.

Join me. Physically or spiritually. The next four to five years will be a good experience. The world will be in a much better place knowing that we all are reaching towards this spiritual quest once it has (hopefully) healed.

Onward.

Testimonios: Understanding Ourselves First

I am from…a family full of stories. Stories that I remember as a child. Stories that I continue to hear as an adult. I am from a family of hard-working dreamers. A family that worked the cotton fields in Central Texas. A family that found work on the migrant farm routes. These experiences created stories of joy and hardship. I am from a family that has fought racism in its ugliest forms as children. I am from a family that experienced discrimination that blocked them from educational opportunities as young adults. Inequities that placed barriers as they worked hard to make a better living for their families and loved ones. I am a product of these stories. They were told to me, my siblings, and my cousins because our ancestors fought hard despite what they faced. We continue to survive and succeed while those that gave us hardships fell victim to their own hate and vitriol. They likely never experienced the level of love and support that my immediate and extended family has provided. I am eternally grateful that I am able to continue the legacy of storytelling to my students and my colleagues.

This I believe…I believe in hope. I am an eternal optimist. Much of this comes from my personal belief that good exists in a world that many question that exists. Ever since I was a kid, adults noticed that I was inquisitive. Often mistaken of being extremely shy, I knew even at a young age that I would rather listen and learn to others to try to understand their perspectives rather than trying to have my verbal thoughts be outwardly projected. Even to this day, I often do this. I do this because I naturally fit into the role of mediator, comforter, and rational-thinker. In a group, I am usually the one that does not (rarely) get angry. I tend to remain reserved and when asked to speak, try my best to guide the discussion into a space of hope and opportunity. This is quite difficult and stressful, but I do believe in hope in situations where hope seems to be either forgotten or impossible. Hope in the dark.

For me, education is….power. Plain and simple. When one has knowledge, one finds their voice. One can dissect and analyze arguments to potentially find flawed thinking and fallacies. Education provides freedom and empowerment to individuals who often are told you cannot reach your aspirations. I am one of those individuals. Starting in junior high, I received many messages that told me I would never *ever* reach the levels of education I now have. I worked so hard to break down my own self-doubts. Being able to achieve a PhD was a monumental task, but I did it. Since achieving it, I have power to share knowledge that has be avoided in our classrooms. Learning is meant to be difficult and challenging, not to be easy and free of discomfort. Your mind needs moments where confusion and dissonance opens the door for new ideas. For many years, as a Chicano student, I felt this dissonance in lessons I received from those I called “teachers”. Often, I asked myself, “this narrative in the lesson is not what I have experienced or what my family experienced.” As an educator, I now have power not in an authoritative sense but in a transformative sense. Education can transform – individuals, communities, and quite obviously, society at large.

I know…that I am spiritual. Now more than ever. Spiritual in a sense that I am understanding the inner-workings of who I am and allowing myself study on why others do what they do and how that impacts their actions and beliefs. Spirituality is not always connected to organized structures of religion. Spirituality, to me, is asking yourself “what brings me joy?” During our quarantine, one positive outcome of it has been that it allowed my busy rushed scheduled to slow down. In slowing down, I needed to ask myself how did we come to the place we are currently at in our history. I continue to read on the works of St.Benedict, Benedictine philosophies of knowledge, patience, work, and deep reflection – ora et labora.

Throughout my education, I found myself…surrounded by fantastic friends. Friends that have become my family. A few have become my brothers and sisters in the truest sense. I find it amazing that in addition to the knowledge you gain from education, you likely will be able to build strong relationships with individuals who could be from completely different backgrounds from you. Yet, through the love of learning you connect in advocating for issues, voicing those who have been denied voice, or exploring new ideas that are unique and challenging. I have found amazing people that I am privileged to call my friends. They have been a key part of my own success in reaching my educational and career aspirations.

I feel most alive when...I am with my students. When I work with undergraduates, I am alive by learning from their fresh views on the world. I love learning about things in popular culture that excite them (especially music!) and the latest digital technology that keeps me on my toes with regards to strategizing on how to engage the next generation of learners. I especially come to life when I mentor young scholars of color. Students who often have been told that they do not belong in certain learning spaces and fields of study. I guess that is why in my administrative career I felt most alive in working with students in academic difficulty (i.e., those on academic probation). They need someone who believed in them so that they could believe in themselves. I feel most alive also when I’m with my graduate students. Our next generation of higher education leaders provide me hope. Hope that I know soon they are going to transform higher education structures and traditional ways of knowing. They are going to challenge and disrupt how education is run today. The disruption has positive outcomes, I believe, in making campuses welcoming spaces, not exclusive ones.

As a higher education leader, I want to…thrive. I want my scholarship to motivate and create change. I want my scholarly activity to collaborate with others who need the world of research and publications to include their voices, especially from practitioners. I am a pedagogical dissenter (Rendon, 2014), I use my teaching spaces to explore and “play” to allow new forms of knowledge creation and expression. I thrive when I try out something and students “get” where I am coming from in terms of how I see learning. I thrive when I work with individuals who value the benefit of letting knowledge “seep” into their understanding of ideas. In our fast food culture, dissertations and research can be more about “how long”, “how many”, “how selective”, or worse…”how quickly can I get it done?” I thrive when I see students and colleagues resist that urge. Knowledge is best when slowly simmered and served with patience, respect, understanding, and a sense of community-building.

I wrote my above testimonio (Espino et al., 2012) in free-hand style. No preliminary notes. No planning. Just thoughts straight from my head to the keyboard. From start to finish, it took me roughly 30 minutes. After typing my response to the last prompt in bold, I was a bit amazed on the introspective thoughts that come deep inside. This story – mi testimonio – allows a look inside on who I am. I provides an idea of what motivates me to do my work and what I hope to accomplish within higher education and beyond. It is my lifeblood.

Students in the class I am currently teaching at Sam Houston State University, HEDL 7332 Organization and Administration of Higher Education, had as their first assignment to write their own personal testimonio – their story. Using the same prompts that you see above in bold, I gave them very few directions other than provide responses to the prompts. I gave them no word count, no specific guidelines on what their responses should include, or directives that it needed to include any specific course content. The only requirement was that they had provide me their testimonio as a handwritten document (mailed to my residence).

Removing oneself from digital technology for this exercise, I figured, added the “humanness” to the creation of the testimonio. Using a pen and pencil as a mediator between the mind and the task allowed for a deeper connection on story creation and the eventual reader of the testimonio – me. In reading the testimonios of my students, I learned amazing feats that have been accomplished not only in their adult lives, but also as young adults and even as children. Stories of overcoming inequities, discrimination, and racism were often presented as childhood memories. As adults, they shared epiphanies of self-discoveries, identity development, and the importance of raising the next generation of engaged citizens (including their children). While my own testimonio provided in this blog entry does use digital technology, it still connects my mind to the task and eventually, I hope, to the reader. Allowing myself the opportunity to just let my mind speak to the prompts allowed thoughts that often shape who I am an opportunity to emerge to the surface to highlight who I truly am in the role as educator and higher education leader. In doing this exercise, I want my students to first learn and understand who they are within higher education organizations before they learn about the organizational behavior found in those spaces. Who they are, what motivates them, and their “reason for being” is important to know. I want to create a “human centered” approach to my teaching of the subject. Human relationships and understanding how organizations respond my students needs, wants, and motivations is what they are reading currently – understanding how organizations see the HUMAN (resource) side of administration and professional service (Bolman & Deal, 2016). However, I want students to understand when we include “human”, it is much more than seeing us as “resources” to make the organization successful. Humanness means that you allow opportunities for individuals to find value in the work they do and to create opportunities that their work has meaning for them and others.

I used the work of Dr. Laura Rendon in my teachings and scholarship. In my current research on applying Benedictine spirituality in higher education administration and organizational issues, I have also expanded my readings to include how cultural practices shapes this spirituality and how higher education member’s define “spirituality” in their work. Dr. Rendon explains her ideas in the book Sentipensante (Sensing/Thinking) Pedagogy:

I find her book insightful and for me personally, validating (a term which she also uses in her scholarship). I reminds me that I am not an “oddball” in this career as a college professor. Teaching is meant to break boundaries and to welcome innovation. Teaching also is meant to allow students to understand themselves. They are not meant to be passive recipients of knowledge…they are meant to respond emotionally, to receive encouragement, and hopefully to experience a sense of a spiritual journey to find their place in our field and in the larger world at large. A daunting task, but one that begins with first writing your story – your testimonio – where you uncover and unearth your lifeblood in creating change on this (physical) Earth. As Benedictine monks will say, the most important lessons likely will come from the most simple, sometimes mundane, tasks. When they do occur, find joy and love.

Onward.

References:

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2017). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership. John Wiley & Sons.

Espino, M. M., Vega, I. I., Rendón, L. I., Ranero, J. J., & Muñiz, M. M. (2012). The process of reflexión in bridging testimonios across lived experience. Equity & Excellence in Education, 45(3), 444-459.

Rendón, L. I. (2012). Sentipensante (sensing/thinking) pedagogy: Educating for wholeness, social justice and liberation. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Angels Among Us

What if angels walked among us? Every day. Standing close to us, listening to our thoughts. Placing their hands on our shoulders to comfort us and to hear our deepest thoughts. What if they were in the places we visit? Where we study. When we walk in the park. When we are in our in saddest moments, contemplating life and our reason for being. What if angels understood our pain, especially now, when we are surrounded by uncertainty, worry, and isolation. What would they say? Could they understand what we are experiencing? What if they worried about us, carefully placing themselves in harm’s way to protect us? Are they able to do that? Do they wish to return back to the physical Earth to make it a better place or to intervene when someone is doing hateful actions? Our world is hurting right now. Do they know? If so, do they feel like they can make things better? Are angels among us? As we continue on this new journey placed in front of us, I believe many of us have stopped and asked ourselves, “Am I okay?” Some of us might ask “What have we done to make nature turn against us?” Others might plainly reflect, “This was coming.” Do the angels among us hear these thoughts? We are at a crossroads and I feel we need guidance. As summer approaches, what usually is a time to enjoy the ease of life has now been replaced by uneasiness. As each week concludes, I like to think that indeed, angels are among us. Everyday. Listening to us. Deeply contemplating how they can help.

These thoughts developed after listening to the podcast, This Movie Changed Me, which is a part of the OnBeing series of podcasts. The episode that inspired this post is the episode featuring film composer Gustavo Santaolalla discussing Wings of Desire.

https://onbeing.org/programs/wings-of-desire-gustavo-santaolalla/

Released in 1987 by German director Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire caught my attention as a college student who loved foreign cinema (my wife and friends often call these movies “Ric Flicks”). I first viewed the movie for the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. I viewed the film again when I was studying for my doctorate in Indiana. I recall at that time that I potential blizzard was in the forecast. I decided to visit the local video rental store that specialized in independent movie releases and little seen foreign films. It was my favorite store in Bloomington to visit on a Friday afternoon. This particular Friday, I wanted to make sure I was stocked up on video rentals in case of the blizzard keeping me indoors. I saw the video cover for Wings of Desire and I immediately picked it up since I remembered that it was such a complex, deep movie and I wanted to view it again through my graduate student lens. I paid for the rental and planned to watch it during my blizzard weekend.

During this part of my adulthood, I was also in the midst of a spiritual awakening/crisis. At that time, I was heavily involved with my local parish and served as a Eucharist minister (as they were called back then) and volunteered for many functions, including group leader for a spiritual retreat. I was also in the throes of a spiritual crisis in that along with my deepening spirituality, this also opened doors for many questions to ask of my faith. I often had deep conversations with my friends in the parish about teachings and directives provided by my Church. My parish, fortunately, was quite progressive for those times, so my questions on faith were welcomed so that I could further understand this important part of myself. When I viewed Wings of Desire again, my introspective self viewed the movie as a message. In my time of awakening and doubt, were angels helping me? That is the essence of the movie. It is what makes it one of the most beautiful movies to watch.

In Wings of Desire, the film follows two angels as they watch life in divided East and West Berlin. Spending most days observing human below in the divided city, Damiel and Cassell, the two immortal angels of the film, listen to the thoughts of ordinary city folx with extraordinary worries and desires. In their daily dialogues with each other, Damiel and Cassell discuss their reasons for being in the city. They accept their role as providing a sense of reality for the individuals they select to listen to and to comfort. As angels, their hope is to make each person they contact to continue onward with their day. As angels, they know their power but they also know their limitations. They cannot intervene to make an accident not happen, only to comfort the individual after the fact. They cannot truly feel the pain of individuals, only to hear the pain and to provide solace. In a way, as angels, they see and hear us, but they are only observers. Angels can only watch as we walk the earth trying to make sense of our pain, our joy, and self-doubts. The angel Damiel decides, after interacting with a beautiful circus acrobat, that he wants to experience human desire and love. He decides to give up his immortality and literally falls to earth as a human. When he does, not only does he feels human love, but he now feels our uncertainties and worries. The whole movie is a wonderful reflection of what we are and what we want to be in the afterlife. However, it also brings attention to the thought that much like humans, angels have desires. Desires to help humanity and desires to be seen and valued, for their work and spirit is their reason for being and feeling valued is what they want – much like the mortal humans they observe from above.

Mr. Santaolalla, who composed the Oscar-winning soundtrack for Brokeback Mountain, beautifully dissects this movie and why it changed his life. In the podcast, he also asks “what if angels are all around us?” In his discussion of the movie, he highlights the deep spirituality addressed in the movie. He specifically analyzes on of the most mesmerizing scenes in the movie. The angels Damiel and Cassell visit a library and within the stacks and study carrels are other angels, listening and supporting humans studying and reading. In the scene, you can hear their whispers and questions as the angels walk from one space to another. Mr. Santaolalla loves this scene since it shows all the angels supporting, but not intervening, the humans in the library. Music and sound plays a pivotal role in this scene, expressing not only the deep reflection, but also the frustration that the angels can only observe the learning and knowledge seeking taking place. It is highlighted when the angel Damiel “picks up” a pencil, knowing that he cannot write down anything on paper. It is also good to note that adults cannot see the angels, only children (which I feel is another beautiful analogy used in the movie – the innocence of children noticing the spiritual power angels possess).

In describing this scene, Santaolalla feels that both humans and angels are expressing thoughts akin to “why am I me and not you.” The angels cannot intervene, but they know that “this me that I am, will no longer be me” should they intervene. It is an existential crisis that mortals and immortals feel. As he continues discussing the movie, Santaolalla gives a wonderful quote regarding his life as a musician and how the movie made him reflect on the importance of music and storytelling. Both, he feels, create the deep faith and spirituality that the films addresses. The faith and belief is created because you use your heart in listening to music and stories, not necessarily always the brain. Hearing this, I thought, made sense. The film director creates the story with images and the film composer creates the music to bring in atmosphere to the viewing experience. Both work in harmony to create art – in the case of Wings of Desire, the art opens the door for imagination and curiosity. Much like a child. Hence, in Wings of Desire, it is only children who can see the angels among us. Their innocence inspires us to try to see the world in wonder.

I took time during my semester break to view Wings of Desire again. I thought about the first time I viewed it and how it made me really think about the messages behind the film. I was younger then and I do not think I really fully understood the meaning of the movie other than the cinematography. Now, I am at a pivotal point of my life. As of this writing, I am 52 years old. I feel that I have achieved my highest career aspiration – receiving tenure as a faculty member. I am also an individual who is rediscovering their spiritual self, with interest to understand monastic culture as a framework to create organizational change in higher education. Today, I am someone living through a global pandemic, hoping that a spiritual intervention can occur to bring our world peace and comfort. In the future, I will be considering if I am being called to do something higher than my faculty career – am I being called to re-evaluate my interest in serving something beyond my university? I have wondered quite recently if being a oblate is my true career goal. I am extremely happy that I received tenure, but is a higher being asking me that the road to professional happiness involves something beyond secular teaching and research? These are life moments that I am encountering. As I enter the second half of my life, I enter it much like a child of innocence. Two years into my second life, I find wonder and amazement still in the world. Hence, I wonder if angels are among us and will I have an opportunity to see them as I get further into this next phase? My spirituality, I feel, has recently reawaken and it has provided a degree of excitement. As I make plans to enter more libraries and quite possibly a monastery for further research, I hope the angels that walk among us surround me. Place their hands upon my shoulder. I also want to let these angels know that I understand you also are hurting. Seeing our world suffer is truly difficult to observe from above. I also walk among you to place my hand on your shoulder.

Together, we can create our stories to comfort, enlighten, and maybe inspire change.

Onward.

Gratefulness: The ABC’s Of Living Life As A Moment

In this era of living socially distant, accepting the “stay at home” mandates, and realizing that facemasks are the newest fashion accessory, I’ve made it a personal goal to study, read, and observe reasons why society has reached this point. In my lifetime, as with most Gen X’ers, I have witnessed and felt the impact of several historic moments. I was born in the summer of 1968. Upon my entrance into this world, I was entering what Smithsonian Magazine calls, “The Year That Shattered America.”

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/timeline-seismic-180967503/

My birthdate, July 16th, places me quite literally in the middle of that year. A few months before my birth 15,000 Latina/o youth marched out of classes in Los Angeles demanding better education conditions. A little over a month after my birth, the Democratic National Convention convened in Chicago, IL., forever remembered for National Guardsmen clashing with the activism and protests of anti-Vietnam War individuals. The Summer Olympics that August provided one of the most powerful images of the Civil Rights Movement when Tommie Smith and John Carlos rose their gloved fists in the air to bring attention to issues surrounding the African American communities of the United States (which their actions stripped them of their medals). As a someone who falls into the Generation X label, life for individuals born around this time has largely been marked by a life somewhat out of balance.

Fast forward to crucial moments of my personal development. As one of few Mexican American families living in the working class suburbs of Dallas-Ft. Worth, the lasting effects of racism and discrimination marked a good portion of my youth. In elementary school, constant messages from my peers made it known is was “different” (usually the ideas from their parents, I assume). In junior high, I started to realize what it meant to be “not rich”, as the competition between junior highs in my area largely was discussed in the lens of socioeconomic status among the students. If you went to Euless Junior High, likely you were not one of the “preps” commonly found at Harwood Junior High or elsewhere. My school was not theirs. Then in high school, a historic national tragedy occurred: the Challenger Shuttle explosion. As with most of my peers, I was at school that day. In fact, I still vividly remember that moment. I was in chemistry lab and the room next to us, the honors chemistry class, was watching it live. As someone who at that time was fascinated by the space shuttle (I even had pictures of the shuttle and astronauts on my bedroom wall), I really wanted to watch that launch since that was the one with the Teacher in Space program. While doing my lab work, I recall the teacher next door coming into our lab and talking with our teacher. I sensed something was up when I heard the students next door talking and I heard someone say “No!”. A few minutes after, that is when our teacher informed us that Mr. Norris, the teacher next door, would talk to us. He came in our room and rather straighforward said the shuttle was in an accident and that the news was trying to gather all the information. He then told us students that it looked like the rockets blew up with the shuttle attached. My world was shattered.

Other events have occurred in my life, including 9/11 and Hurricanes Ike and Harvey. However, I focus on my birthdate and the shuttle explosion because I feel it frames what our youngest individuals might be experiencing, especially those in K-12 educational levels. Life is uncertain at this moment for them. Their routines have been disrupted for a “new normal.” Children under 10 years old likely have “COVID-19, “virus”, and “pandemic” now as part of their still developing vocabulary. In my reflections during this time, this particular week I have placed deep thought on the development and health of children, youth to young adults about to enter their college years. When I was sort of in their shoes, I remember feeling a bit lost and sometimes scared. Even in those dark days in my life experience, I try to balance those dark days with moments that allowed me to break through to still develop into the person that I am today. I see myself as an person who values empathic care, collaboration, and social justice. Notice that anxiety, fright, and uncertainty are not part of my profile. My strengths largely are a result of moments – those actions and little acts of courage and care – provided to me from individuals I know and frequently random individuals who pop up to do something just when I needed such action. In this COVID time of our life, we need to pay attention to when those small acts of courage occur and understand how they provide hope – for you, the community, and the world.

This past week, I had a Zoom class meeting with my wonderful doctoral student-scholars in my class HEDL 7374, The College Student. This class discusses student development theory and scholarship on the impact of the environment on different facets of individual development. In the Zoom meeting, my students and I conversed for two hours on how COVID19 is impacting our student learners – now and possibly in the future. It was a thought-provoking discussion. Students discussed the mental health issues we have yet to understand in a post-COVID world. In terms of learning and social interaction, we discussed how anxiety and uncertainty will likely be a characteristic associated with learning skills in the post-social distance classroom. These are heavy topics that worry my student-scholar educators. However, the conversation was not all gloom. Without my prompting, I was pleased to also hear how these educators also believe these students will carry with them a legacy of hope. Hopefulness that this next generation will be leaders who will adapt to rapid change. In fact, one student is already labeling the next generation as “The Adaptables”, almost akin to superheroes. Another student shared that these students will value hope, community engagement, and activism since today’s K-12 learners will likely remember those “moments” where their class, their neighborhood, and the nation united to share the experience together – “we’re all in this together” is a frequent motto they are hearing and will remember. This same student brilliantly summarized this feeling when she said the following qoute: People don’t remember days, they remember moments.

Quote created by Luvia Rivera Valles

What a beautiful way to capture this hope! We still do not know how long our quarantine will last, despite actions to slowly lift our “stay at home” requests. When we get through this, what will we remember? I agree with my student. I hope I don’t remember the number of days I stayed close to home. I hope to remember neighbors finally waving to each other asking “how are you doing?” I hope to remember the workers at my local grocery store who reminded shoppers about social distancing inside the store with a tone of care and even lightheartedness and humor to calm any anxiety of customers. I hope to remember my virtual “happy hours” and reunions with friends near and afar. These are moments that lasted seconds, a few minutes, or a couple of hours. All share one common trait. You don’t remember the exact day or date during this crisis. You just remember that it happened. And that is all you need to make you feel hope.

Last week, my scholar-brother texted me encouraging me to listen to one of his favorite podcasts, OnBeing. In his text, he mentioned that the episode featured Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl Rast. Brother David’s interview discussed how to include gratefulness in our daily lives. In my previous posts, I mentioned my new love and scholarly activity on studying the writings of St. Benedict and applications of The Rule, his guidelines for creating and cultivating monastic community. Seeing my friend’s text caught my attention immediately and I promised him I would listen. Br. David’s interview was titled, “How to Be Grateful in Every Moment (But Not For Everything).”

In true Benedictine style, the title reflects the thinking and direction of Benedictine culture. It is what draws me in my learning of this Order. I value the idea of using every day to find time for deep introspection and observing the gifts found in the ordinary. But Br. David reminds us to not go overboard – “but not for everything” – for life isn’t about finding an abundance of riches, it’s about being respectful of what is provided to you and that to reach for higher levels of gratefulness, you have to provide continued work to sustain the goodness in your life which has to include prayer (or deep meditation or thought). I listened with joy to this podcast and I encourage to take one hour of your COVID19 day to enjoy the wisdom and knowledge only monks can bring. Also, Br. David’s voice can calm any bad day you are having – it is a true monk voice. It is a lovely episode and it made me a fan of this podcast!

In researching more about Brother David Steindl Rast, I visited his website, Gratefulness.org. In my exploration, I came across this exercise he developed that allowed me to reflect on moments that help me create gratefulness in my life. The exercise Br. David asks us to practice for grateful living is called The ABCs of Grateful Living. Seeing how simple it was for my weekly reflection, I tried it out. Quite simply, he calls it “a game.” You use the alphabet and for each letter, you put the first word that comes to your mind that you are grateful for in your life. Here is my ABCs for Grateful Living;

A – Activism. I am always amazed at the courage of activists in our society. They truly are needed at this time and I am grateful for such role models.

B – Beer. I’m sorry, not sorry, for having this on my list. I love beer. If Br. David can have food items on his list, then so can I! I especially love a well made craft beer. Hefeweizens and wheat ales in particular. Maybe I can have a beer with Br. David. I will be so grateful for that!

C -Celebrations. Especially now when celebrating something is done virtually. Celebrations are events where you value your human connectedness. I am grateful that many celebrations will be occurring soon once this passes.

D – Dogs. Our pets now more that ever our important in our lives. They are more than companions. They comfort us. They are non-judgemental (most of the time). I’m biased, since I am a dog lover!

E -Excellence. Not like 100%, Grade “A”, type excellence. I’m talking about just being someone who excels at what they do knowing that they will be always learning.

F -Family and Friends. Of course, family and friends are my life. This letter requires a double-scoop of gratefulness!

G – Goodness. I know it sound close to gratefulness, but you can provide such without being a good person. And you can’t appreciate it if you yourself to not value goodness.

H – Help. Everyday I believe has an act of help. Either you help someone or you ask for help. What a wonderful act of gratefulness when you provide or ask for help.

I – Inquiry. The lifeblood of my work as a faculty member is inquiry. As an inquisitive persons, I am grateful that I have a career where I am ask to ask questions!

J – Justice. We need more justice for those who seek it. Justice is what makes us a civil society. I am grateful for those whose work everyday involves justice – lawyers, judges, and such.

K – Kids. While I do not have kids, I have often thought about kids in this time. I am grateful that what I see as an adult, kids see this as a new world, open to exploration and new journeys. Let’s hope that in the end, they will be our next movers and shakers.

L – Life. The first word that popped in my head. Let’s appreciate life more. Now especially.

M – Music. My music taste goes across all genres. I find peace in songs that are considered “goth”, but whose lyrics express desire for human connectedness. But I also love a good dance tune, especially EDM.

N – New Order. Okay, it’s the name of my favorite band. Their music excites me. Their music makes me dance. Their music brings back great memories. The music you love should provide these.

O – Officers. Anyone in leadership. Anyone who is asked to serve in such roles. Two of my family members are police officers. Knowing that officers can bring about certain perceptions, I know my brothers are in this work to truly serve and protect, not to harm. Officers are leaders. Anyone in leadership I am grateful for and admire.

P – Peace. Peace is a goal. An ultimate goal that we should be grateful to strive for each day.

Q -Questions. I also found questioning to be one of the most powerful human actions. Asking for more information, more knowledge, more facts is something we should value, not dismiss as “fake”.

R – Running. Running, while being a physical activity, brings me peace. Especially when done in the morning surrounded by nature.

S – Students. My calling was to teach. To teach, you need students. Students are in the classroom to learn. To learn, it is the most crucial act for someone’s development. I take that seriously and I am grateful for everyday I teach.

T – Timeouts. One thing I will leave this era with is the value of taking timeout of the day and week to reflect. Our society has been rushed for too long. We need to slow down and I am grateful, that while I wish it was under different circumstances, for having more timeouts.

U – Understanding. Letting someone know that you understand their story, their challenges, their needs. Let’s be grateful for those people who take time to hear us out.

V – Vaccine. I know that there are heroes working tirelessly creating a vaccine for COVID19. Once one is developed, we will be grateful for the names connected to the creation of such a lifesaving testament to serving humanity.

W – Weather. In another life, I think I was a meteorologist. In fact, it was my major during the first two years of my college years. In weather, you can still find some beauty in the strongest of storms. Weather, I feel, represents all of life’s cycles.

X – Xtraness. I made up this word. LOL. This letter is tough. I’ll see what Br. David’s response was. Anyway, let us be x-tra during this time. 🙂

Y – Young adults. College students in particular. They are my reason for being. I value and I am grateful that my career involves such an important population. I am glad that I can hopefully mold and impact young adults in their lives.

Z -Zen. Again, this “stay at home” routine has provided a good amount of Zen moments, just moments where I am allowed to ask myself, who am I and how can I make a difference. It could also just be watching the clouds go by. Something I should have noticed before.

The above list was created in 20 minutes. Not a great amount of time, but that is all it took. After this post is published, I’ll go back and fully read my list. It is just one moment of my day where I will be able to see where I am in my journey of gratefulness. The exercise will also allow me to use such philosophy to see my life as a fulfilling moment that gives me joy and appreciation of the simple things in life. My life, and everyone’s life, is a bit off balance right now.

Time to take 20 minutes to add gratefulness in our lives. Brother David does it when he’s waiting at the dentist office, why can’t we do it when we are in our homes and before we flip the Netflix on?

For that, I am grateful. Onward.

A Stranger But Once

Today is Saturday, April 11, 2020, and for exactly one month, I haven’t ventured past a 5 mile radius of my house. COVID19 is present in our lives and it is making very clear that it does not intend to leave anytime soon, despite what some might believe. This is our new normal, or as my wife likes to say, our “new dynamic.” It has been one month since I have seen my work office 90 miles north at the Sam Houston State University campus. It has been a month since I been in close physical presence with my faculty colleagues, many which I consider close friends. It has been a month since I have enjoyed taking a nice morning run with members of my running club, bragging about race results and paces. It has been a month since I entered a sanctuary of worship, being able to share in prayer wishes for peace among a community. One month. Another month seems very apparent and possibly more after that.

Despite the dire outlook of the above description, I have strangely found inner peace that can only come when one is sequestered in their home for a good amount of time. My “new dynamic” has now become a routine day during this time. I typically get up around 6:30am. Go downstairs, make a cup of coffee (really, a cup of cream with coffee), toast some protein waffles, turn on the computer, walk the dog, shower, get dressed, then work on my computer usually from 8:30am-4:00pm. Trying to keep a regular routine has helped me handle the uncertainty that this moment in time is bringing me. While COVID19 is obviously on my mind as well as everyone else, I often feel anxious on the social outcomes this might lead to in our society. What if the idea of social distancing continues well past the pandemic? There is already talk about eliminating handshakes, which for a Latino, is extremely difficult to process since our cultural expressions of welcome and love include physical human touch. My daily routine usually ends with reflection on if I am ready for this. However, my new dynamic has allowed me the behaviors which I practice to settle my anxieties – meditation and reflection.

In my new weekly routine, I have marked out days of the week where I allow myself to practice meditation and reflection. Typically, when I can, these occur in the early week (Tuesday) and before the weekend (Thursday). On these days during the evenings, I try to my best ability to find space to allow myself to read, listen to music, and to write notes or short statements on what I am reflecting on that day or week. One theme that I have notice in this month of “stay at home” is my deep appreciation for the friendships I have developed with a variety of people. Friendships that have stood the test of time, friendships that have been rooted since elementary school, friendships that just developed this past month, and friendships that include individuals who are more than friends to me – they are family. The theme of my weekly reflections have routinely included appreciation of those who I call friends. During these times, I feel like I am observing a world akin to the image above. We are surrounded by uncertainty and disturbances and we know that a storm may be approaching….yet, despite this gloom, there can be found beauty and a certain degree of peace. That peace for me comes from my weekly reflections on friendship and the act of opening your heart to extend friendship to one who was once a stranger and the act of hospitality, where you welcome others into your community, house, and for a fortunate few, your inner soul.

One book that I completed during this time is “How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning, and Community” by Judith Valente (2018). In my continued study of St. Benedict which started before the pandemic, I started framing our COVID19 era within the teachings of St. Benedict and The Rule. My regular readings of The Rule and books and essays using Benedictine teachings as ways to live a meaningful life has been important to me in deciphering everything that is occurring today. In her book, Valente uses The Rule to describe key moments in her journey to renew her spirit and reframe her busy life as an award-winning journalist into one where work and spirituality (which included prayer) coexist. Prayer and work – ora et labora – is the Benedictine motto Valente uses to frame her encounters with monks (brothers and sisters at various monasteries in the United States) and normal everyday folx who she uses as examples of the simple life that St. Benedict wished upon his fellow monks. Work that provides life, not life that provides work. Valente finds that her work as a career-rising journalist was not fulfilling as she wished, despite her achievements and awards. She desired her work to provide more than income and awards, she wanted her journalism work to provide meaning to the community. What she noticed and forgot during her early career was how her work provided meaning to her. Thus, embarked her journey in becoming an oblate (i.e., a layperson who commits spiritually to an monastery and its Order) to a small monastery in Kentucky. In her book, she uses this phase of her life journey to reflect on different chapters and teachings from St. Benedict’s The Rule. One important theme I found in reading “How to Live” is that a central answer to the book’s title is life is lived when you surround yourself with friends. Friends of all types and at all levels. Friends who you see or text everyday. Friends you have not seen in 20 or more years, but you know if you saw each other, it would be like yesterday since you last met. Friends who comfort you, even when you did not know you needed comfort. Friends who you know that after that first meeting, you become someone who “is a stranger but once” (Valente, 2018, p. 127)

When I read that quote during my meditative reading, I immediately fell in love with it. A stranger but once. Read it again. Stranger but once. The quote was written along the teaching of St. Benedict regarding one of their notable callings – hospitality. In this era of social distancing, I found it very hard to not express myself in one of the most impactful practices among Benedictine culture, to extend and provide hospitality and to seek out individuals who are strangers but once, who possibly become your ally and lifelong friend. Valente makes note on the origins of the word hospitality – which is derived from Latin hospes, meaning guest. Interestingly, hospes can also mean stranger. It shares its root with the word hostis, meaning enemy (Valente, 2018). So, in social interactions, individuals have the possibility to seen as guest or enemy. St. Benedict encourages us to live a life where we see individuals as those we would welcome in our house. When they enter your house, “these visitors would be welcomed with all the courtesy of love” (p. 123). While your house could literally mean your residence, your house could also include allowing individuals to enter your inner-self, to open the door to allow others to understand you and to connect with you to help you navigate your life’s journey.

During my time of deep reflection on the Benedictine way of hospitality and reflecting on the importance of seeing others as “guests” just once (who also can become lifelong friends), R&B singer Bill Withers passed away on March 30, 2020. Withers is well known for his song “Lean on Me”. Withers’ song likely has been sung by groups of friends at parties, weddings, reunions, and quite possibly a Zoom virtual happy hour. Upon news of his passing just over a week ago, I read the lyrics to this memorable song. While I do not know the extent of Mr. Withers’ spirituality, I found the lyrics remarkably similar to St. Benedict’s teaching of extending hospitality to guests and giving that opportunity to your guest to possibly be “a stranger just once.”

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on

What a beautiful account of friendship and hospitality. Telling someone “I’ll be your friend” is something we all need to hear during this new dynamic. “Lean on me, when you’re not strong” is exactly what it means to live a full life, one with meaning and purpose. Purpose and meaning is not necessarily measure by the work needed for something like tenure and promotion. Work with life is when you extend yourself to a colleague in need to let them know, “I am here for you.” When you do, both of you carry on. “And I’ll be your friend.” Is that what life is all about? Being a friend to someone. Sharing a bond that oftentimes last years, despite the highs and lows that often come from a deep friendship. “Somebody to lean on”. In my periods of anxiety, in my periods of intense sadness, and in my periods of uncertainty, I remind myself that friends keep me afloat. Do I recall when those friends were once strangers? Often, not. It does not matter. They have entered my house and my house is theirs.

Together, although we are socially distant and apart, if I call you my “friend”, know that you are always in my house. And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on. Now. Always.

Onward.

References:

Valente, J. (2018). How to live: What the rule of St. Benedict teaches us about happiness, meaning, and community. Hampton Roads Publishing.

Withers, B., & Billingsley, A. (1972). Lean on me. Festival Music.

Baldwin & Identity: Learning to Love Myself

James Baldwin, surprisingly, has just recently entered my life. Baldwin was many things – an essayist, playwright, debater, scholar, artist, and activist. In 1987, his passing went unannounced in my life. His almost 40 years of writings and opinions were something unfamiliar to me. I’m sure in some first- or second-year college American literature course I came across one of his essays (at the date of his death, I was just about to start my second semester of my freshman year), but I did not take note, nor was educated on how much this celebrated African American man influenced our knowledge on the experiences of people of color in the United States.

In 1987, I was just starting my own journey in understanding my identity as a young Mexican American (at that time, I didn’t embrace “Chicano” yet) man. Naive and immature, I mainly saw my initial college years as ones to enjoy all the debauchery that college is known for – parties, clubbing, drinking, and meeting new friends. These initial years also brought overt experiences of racism and discrimination. While these experiences have always been a part of my life, what made these acts different was my idea that it would all end once I entered a university. I held an idyllic image of what college was supposed to be like – a setting where you studied under large trees with other students laughing and learning together. Instead, I found an environment that did not quite understand how to deal with the diversity of the people who entered its space each year. My university was also located in what was then considered a semi-rural area, where bastions of white supremacy and communities with a rich history of racism surrounded the campus.

This setting provided the background in understanding in my understanding what it means to be Chicano. In the hallways where knowledge was passed to students, myself and my friends who looked like me also received messages of “go back to Mexico”, “hey beaner”, “English only spoken here”, and “spic”. Friendly parties that went into the late evenings were broken up by the police once the house party started playing Tejano music (my friends and I always had a theory that rap and pop music blaring loud were fine to the neighbors, but when Spanish music was played, time to call the cops). Student organizations on campus were notable for their lack of diversity, especially in student leadership. Programming for cultural activities was often questioned more often in the guise of “will the attendance be worthwhile” or “there will be limited interest on that topic.” After three years of constant, sometimes daily, reminders of being different on a predominantly white campus, I made it a priority to learn more about myself, as someone who was quickly learning what it means to be Chicano in the United States.

The previous paragraphs set up my eventual plan to learn about my ethnic identity and what possible directions it might have taken if James Baldwin was introduced to me at that time. As part of my taking opportunity of life living under a pandemic, I reserved my Friday afternoons to engage in reflection to understand how we as a society ended up at this moment and what I can learn from it. Using film, music, and writing as my references, I hope to come out of this worldwide health crisis with a clearer lens and a hopeful outlook. My colleague and scholar-brother, Dr. Paul Eaton, has always encouraged me to look into Baldwin’s writings. While I ventured into viewing of the documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro”, was initially to understand my friend’s love of Baldwin’s work, I left my viewing of this film really connecting to how Baldwin’s essays connected to my own ethnic identity development. In addition, I loved how the film used archival footage of Hollywood movies to highlight key ideas found in Baldwin’s essays. I left my viewing with a full page of notes and I plan to further my education of James Baldwin.

One of the most powerful sections of the documentary involved describing Baldwin’s own educational journey, starting with his elementary schooling. If I recall, this section of the film fell under the title “Heroes.” In my elementary experience, I was one of few Mexican American children at my school. Reflecting back, I believe I was one of maybe two or three Mexican American boys. My childhood is filled with very vivid accounts of how I was different in the school. Through my young eyes, I did not see these experiences as anything but unfamiliarity with my culture. As adult, I see these many experiences as reflections of how U.S. society has always treated minoritized communities, especially in schools. One of the most powerful quotes I made note of in my viewing was Baldwin thoughts on the educational experience of many young students of color during pre-Civil Rights: “segregation starts once you go through the schoolhouse door.” When I heard this, I immediately visualized my own self going through various school doors where this occurred. Once I entered spaces of learning where I wasn’t visible, the segregation immediately occurred. As an elementary learner, I looked different than my classmates. As a junior high student, I was denied my love of reading due to my slurred speech. As a high school student, I was subjugated to the silly social group divisions – the “preps”, the jocks, the stoners, and the band nerds – most of these based on family income status. As a college student, it was all of these combined. Each educational setting I have entered has been one where I am reminded that I have to do extra just to succeed.

What if James Baldwin was part of my college development in 1987? Using the documentary as a frame of reference, I believe he would have provided validation on how I felt as a person of color in U.S. society at that time. My constant feeling of feeling like a “stranger” whenever I went to school – a place I deeply loved – matched Baldwin’s thoughts writing as a Black man living in a deeply divided United States. His keen observations of how we see each other (especially through Hollywood films) and ability to write about his experiences through powerful analogies (for example, describing Sunday services as “the most segregated hour in America”) would have been powerful guideposts to direct me in further understand my own understanding of who I was as a college student.

Jump forward to 2020, where I am now about to embark on yet another educational journey. This past week, I found out that I was approved for promotion to Associate Professor with tenure (pending Board of Regents approval, which should be given). I wrote in a social media post that this has been a journey over 40 years in the making. A journey that started at Midway Park Elementary in Euless,Texas. Like Baldwin,I wrote that my heroes were my elementary school teachers. My love of teaching was influenced by observing and receiving the care of those teachers who noticed and took in a shy quiet kid who loved reading and learning. I still remember the care and empathy shown by Mrs. Purvis, Mrs. Wallace, Mrs. Busey, Mrs. Copeland, and my favorite, my sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Nixon, who at one time did help me figure out several incidents of racism by my classmates, who were just beginning to understand what it means to have power to oppress others. My new role as a tenured professor is something I do not take lightly. I’m entering yet another space where others who look like me – a Latino male – are few. In 2018, there were only 3-4% Latino men as full-time college faculty (NCES, 2018).

James Baldwin entering my life could not have come at a better time. This new phase needs me to further understand what it means to be a Latino male who now can use his tenure to advocate and support the Latinx community. I am finding out that James Baldwin was a prolific scholar, often providing talks and presentations at colleges and universities worldwide. He was a writer who could use his skill to not only pull the curtain to show the ugly side of U.S. race relations, but also use the power of the pen to uplift communities to believe in themselves and to love through activism. Baldwin was a confident individual, something that I know I need further improvement. In the documentary, there is clip where he engages in passionate dialogue with a white Ivy League scholar. What impressed me in this clip was Baldwin’s ability to engage his passion to not win or downplay his colleague, but to raise even more questions on why we need to understand the state of our nation. His confidence left an impression on me. I thought if I could do the same with my own faculty colleagues.

After viewing this powerful documentary using James Baldwin’s words, I came to the conclusion that I need to read more of his works not only to learn about his ideas, but to learn to love myself even more. I am entering a stage of my life where I feel the most confident I have ever felt. I have achieved an accomplishment that few have reached. It was one of the most difficult and surreal journeys in my life, but I did it. What comes next? That is the question I am looking forward to exploring. I know that it will still be challenging, but in the process, I have further developed my ethnic identity, my scholar identity, and my understanding on how to further use this role to support my Latinx community.

James Baldwin, how can you help me? What words have you written that I can learn from today? What thoughts can you pass down to another scholar of color? Have you ever spoken to other young men of color who were reaching the highest levels of education? And if you did, what advice did you share with them? How can I improve my confidence, much like you shown when asked to explain the most difficult of society’s problems? How can I use this knowledge in the classroom and in the role of tenured faculty?

Is there a Latinx writer-scholar equivalent to you?

I look forward to my continued education on the works of James Baldwin. I feel that it will help me in my new identities recently earned and continue to help me understand myself in these interesting and continually evolving times. It’s time to go home and pay my dues.

Onward.

Life Out of Balance

In the late evening/early morning hours of March 3, 2020, a large tornado hit the greater Nashville, TN area just 1.5 miles from the central downtown area. At that time, my wife and I were attending a national conference for higher education student affairs administrators. As I woke up that night, I thought it was strange to see bright strobe-light like flashes of light that were blue and green, but with no thunder. The tornado sirens went off and then the hotel intercoms awoke hotel guests to evacuate their rooms immediately to proceed to the stairwells and move down to the lowest floors. Stunned and dressed for bed, hundreds of hotel guests moved to the stairwell, myself and my wife included. Once we reached the lowest levels, we waited for the all clear with hundreds of other guests, many who were attending the same conference. For 15 or so minutes, we waited patiently, checked social media, and stayed relatively calm and upbeat, not knowing the destruction occurring literally just blocks away.

Flash forward to today. The image of hundreds of individuals huddled in a tight, confined space, brings me mixed reactions. At that time, everyone kept the mood light and supportive, wondering what was happening to our Nashville guests and community. Today, I cannot think about being in that same situation without wondering more about my personal safety and health. Faced with the same situation today, would I considered the well-being of the community outside the hotel or would I be wondering who could be possibly carrying a virus that could transmit over to me? These are rough times. At this writing, 13,000 cases of U.S. coronavirus have been reported and milions of individuals in San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere are being asked to stay at home this weekend. Our lives have been shifted to a new normal – one that asks us to be “socially distant”, avoid services and activities like going to the gym or getting a haircut, and altering our spiritual lives by removing interactions among parishes, congregations, temples and mosques. On social media, individuals are posting pictures celebrating the purchasing of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, or hand soap. Next week, millions of K-12 and college students will return to virtual classrooms, where instruction and assignments will be delivered online. Traditions that define young adults – proms, graduations, weddings, sporting events, hanging out at the bars, etc. – are now “cancelled” or “closed until further notice”. These examples provide evidence of troubling times. Or do they? Can this moment in our global history be seen only through dire lens? Is life out of balance?

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

The Nashville tornado struck during the national convention of ACPA College Student Educators International. For that conference, I presented a session titled “The Calling We Seek: (Re)framing Student Affairs Through Monastic Ideas.” I used this session to initiate community discussion on applying St. Benedict’s The Rule (516 A.D.) and monastic culture as a unique frameworks to help us (re)frame our work in higher education student affairs to create work and professional identities and lives that are full and balanced.  At this juncture of my career in higher education, I am trying to understand, both in a philosophical sense and in a spiritual sense, how we have turned into a profession that views professionals as “laborers and production tools contributing only time and energy with little consideration for their being” (Squire & Niccolazzo, 2019, p. 4). At one time, we were a profession that viewed individuals as deserving “full and balanced development” as stated in one of our profession’s foundational historic document, the Student Personnel Point of View (American Council of Education, 1949, p. 19), which has been a central tenet of the profession. Squire & Niccolazzo (2019) believes that we have moved “away from a developmental framework”, where professionals who enter the field to advocate for students, transform organizational structures, and fight for social justice, are instead valued for being cogs in the assembly line of higher education. As someone who has been in the field for now 30 years, I am an eternal optimist. I refuse to believe that higher education can only exist in the troubling form described by Squire and Niccolazzo. As I reached the midpoint of my life, I have returned to part of my identity that has been diminished once I received my Ph.D. – my spiritual self.

As a doctoral student working on his degree at Indiana University in Higher Education, I felt a strong connection at that time to my spiritual identity. As a Latino male navigating the unfamiliar territory of doctoral studies at a location 900 miles away from my home, I found solace and comfort in asking a higher being to watch over me and to provide guidance to help me obtain my educational goals. This spiritual behavior included heavy involvement in the Catholic parish near campus. This involvement culminated in being selected to be a retreat leader for Kairos, an intensive three-day spiritual retreat for college students held at the Archabbey of St. Meinrad about 2-3 hours away from the Indiana University campus. As a retreat leader, I was provided the rare opportunity to learn about life and culture in a cloistered monastery. Being guided by one of the brothers at the monastery, I learned about the daily life, tasks and duties, and spiritual development of the brothers who were “called” to live the life of of Benedictine monk.

https://www.saintmeinrad.edu/

I was fascinated by the life of these men who referred to each other as “brothers”, who lived communally in an environment that welcomed deep reflection and support, and valued work – intellectual and physical – reflecting their calling for hospitality and education. Long story short, after my retreat experience, I had deep reflection personally on whether I was receiving some sort of “calling” as a doctoral student. In my whole life, I have always been deeply reflective, extremely emotional, strongly loyal, and simple. Was the life I saw at the monastery something I could possibly live? I consider this as a possible life choice. Obviously, I didn’t take that route, but I chose a profession that I feel is still a calling – that of a college educator. Since then I have always respected and honored the life of monks and the culture associated with cloistered communities. It is something I have always kept in the head which I am now exploring in my role as a college faculty member. I have always waited to feel my “calling” to pick this back up and now I feel that I am reaching a crossroad in my career where understanding the value of spiritual wellness and community is important, not just for me, but for the higher education community – a lens to understand where we have been and where we are possibly going. Unfortunately, where we are going is challenging my idea of having a calling and I hear that in the voices of colleagues in the field. Our professional life is out of balance.

During the convention, there was looming dread about the future impact of the coronavirus. Conference attendees were encouraged to wash hands thoroughly, to not shake hands or hug (which is a HUGE request to ask professionals in our field), and to keep pay attention to any sudden shifts of health. Concern and worries about the days after convention were discussed throughout the convention. Those worries came into complete realization the week of March 9th. In the span of a week, institutions of higher education were deciding to limit student contact on campus, to figure out how to control the spread of the virus, and how to handle the daily functioning of a college. The following week, campuses for the most part are now completely online. The recent events are unprecedented in these modern times. Again, my reflections of where we are at in higher education, where we have been, and where it is going in terms of professional and work culture are weighing heavy in my mind. How did we get here? This is not just a higher education issue, this has become a worldwide concern on how we have been living and how our lives have possibly been impacted by our over reliance of technology, our ability to avoid strengthening community, and the ease of controlling and oppressing individuals for our own selfish gains.

Life is out of balancecurrently. This is where my eternal optimism shows up. It is truly my hope that along with the pain and hurt we will observe in the weeks and months ahead, we will also see the marked changes humans will achieve after social isolation that helps them value the worth of community and validation. We are noticing this in understanding the impact of the service industry. We are recognizing the importance of those who help make our day a bit more important – the nurse, the first responder, the waitperson, the grocery cashier, the flight attendant, the housekeeper, and the list goes on. My hope is once we are able to do more our daily tasks, we honor more the work that these individuals provide. My ultimate goal is that this carries over to the wonderful and valuable work our student affairs professionals provide on our campuses. The entry-level resident director, the mid-level director, and senior-level administrator who hasn’t lost their calling as they climbed the ranks. We need to respect their work and treat it with the value we failed, in most cases, to notice before this crisis.

In this semester of remote work at home and supporting students and colleagues online, I have made it a point to use Friday as a day of reflection on where we are at as a society. This will be done through a selection of readings focused on spirituality in education and teaching, reflection and journaling of current events, listening of music of genres unfamiliar to me, and viewing of film that address the broad question, “how did we get here?”

I started this spiritual journey by viewing the documentary feature, “Koyaanisqutsi”, a 1982 film consisting of images depicting how mass-produced technology has infiltrated and overtaken nature and human life. Shown through a series of slow-motion and time-lapsed footage in urban areas set to the minimalist music of composer Phillip Glass, this film provides a remarkable account of “life out of balance”. Individuals are placed in settings where anonymity is valued. Technology (at least the earliest versions of what we have now) has overtaken nature, where we as humans prefer to be in spaces devoid of appreciation of beauty and peacefulness. Slowness is considered invaluable where speed and quick response is desired and the ultimate goal. While made in the early 1980s, this film is so prophetic. The images today, many which are iconic in cinema, ring true today. Some images in the film are haunting even in today’s standards – the lonely individual who raises her car’s power window only to be replaced by the reflection of a huge anonymous skyscraper, the mass-production of food (see below clip of Oscar Meyer wieners at 4:00 minute mark) coming off the conveyor belt juxtaposed with humans going up an escalator, both looking similar, then the iconic time-lapse footage of cars on a freeway , representing our avoidance of observing the nature surrounding us. This film provides me one answer on how we got here. We have lived our life out of balance. We have to change. Images like those found in the below clip need to change. We need to reflect on why life looks like it does below. We need to press the brake. We need to slow down. We need to rebalance.

As I continue to reflect on events occurring today, I will make use of this time to understand our crisis through the practice of writing. I hope to use the references mentioned above to create more posts providing my thoughts. Using the visual and media arts is valuable during this time of reflection. I aim to include it as much as possible. My goal is to turn these reflective posts into something I can piece together to create a larger thought paper. What I’ll do with it remains to be seen, but I do hope it can produce something that might be of interest to a newsletter, publication, or book. If not, I’m just glad that I am taking time to write and I appreciate that you found interest to get this far. I welcome any thoughts or comments. Feel free to email me at rxm059@shsu.edu to respond. Let’s try together to view this historic event spiritually and with an eye on how we can transform life – both professionally and personally – when all is said and done.

In the end, we will hug and appreciate the value of human connection and balance.

Onward.

For additional reading and viewing:

American Council on Education. Committee on Student Personnel work, & Williamson, E. G. (1949). The student personnel point of view.

Coppola, F. F., Reggio, G., Fricke, R., Glass, P., Riesman, M., Hoenig, M., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Film Co., … MGM Home Entertainment Inc. (2002). Koyaanisqatsi. Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment.

Meisel, A. C. & Mastro, M. L. (1975). The rule of St. Benedict: Translated with introduction and notes. Doubleday Publishers.

Squir, D. D. & Nicolazzo, Z. (2019). Love my naps, but stay woke: The case against self-care. About Campus 24(2). https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1086482219869997

Taylor, B.C. (1989). Spirituality for everyday living: An adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.

Valente, J. (2016). How to live: What the Rule of St. Benedict teaches us about happiness, meaning, and community. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads.

My Picks for Ric Flicks of 2019: Social Class, The Boss, and The Best of Plans

If you don’t know yet, I consider myself a cinephile. I love movies. I love escaping into a good story and letting the plot and characters guide me into their world. While it is easy to let viewers into familiar stories with plot lines that do not surprise, I prefer movies that lead into unexpected areas where I am caught off-guard, thrown off-balance, and left with sense of confusion and amazement once I leave the theatre. My preferred movies are not for the average movie goer. They require preparation by not knowing (in most cases) the plot, characters, and settings. The less I know, the better my experience. I love to go into a theatre with a sense of excitement and uncertainty with what the next two hours may hold.

These characteristics combine to create what my wife Angie calls, a “Ric Flick”. Ric Flicks are movies that usually are placed into the category of art-house movies, which is a shame. These movies are some of the best and demand a wider audience appreciation. They demand viewers to think, to not follow the expected story conclusions, and most importantly, to reflect on what was just presented on the screen. Nothing is more satisfying for me than discussing and sharing thoughts on a shared movie experience. Last year, I had the pleasure of viewing the movie “Roma” with my colleague and scholar-brother Paul Eaton. After viewing this beautiful film, I recall both of us immediately sharing deep reflections on the images, the story, and the gorgeous cinematography presented to us. It was a movie that did not leave us immediately. The story opened more doors of contemplation and analysis well after the final credits. I prefer like these – movies that challenge, movies that provide deep introspection, movies that do more than offer explosions and action. These are “Ric Flicks”.

Ric Flicks of 2019

The movies of 2019 did not disappoint. In fact, there are several movies that I’m sure will be on this list once I see them. In no particular order, the movies that I have NOT seen that would likely round out the two movies described on this post include:

  1. The Lighthouse
  2. Little Women
  3. Jojo Rabbit

I hope to see these movies before the end of the year and I’m sure they will be on my “best of” list for 2019. Viewing their trailers provide some taste of what each story brings to the viewer, which hint at their unique perspectives of the film’s characters.

While I did see a variety of movies, this post will describe two movies that I thought were fantastic movie watching experiences. They definitely fall into two spectrums of movie watching, but both share an uncanny sense of humor among the harshest of environments. While having characteristics of humor, each film dives into heady issues of racism, social class, stereotypes, and inequity in society. I think this is why these films are at the top of my list. Each film deals with these issues in unexpected ways. Whether it is through music or social satire, these movies provided viewers new perspectives on common issues facing all of us today.

These two movies I highly recommend!

Blinded by the Light

One of the unexpected surprises of 2019 was “Blinded by the Light”, an uplifting story of an English-born Pakistan teenager who discovers the music and wisdom of Bruce Springsteen.

Javed is an aspiring writer in high school who lives in the economically impoverished working class town of Luton, where unemployment, racism, and white nationalism coexist with dreams of a better life just beyond the city limits. Javed imagines life outside of his hometown. Luton is about 40 miles away from London. Javed is a dreamer and London represents an escape from strife he observes daily in Luton. The films begins with a young Javed sitting on top of a grassy hill with his friend Matt. Both look at the traffic on the freeway below leading drivers toward London. Each promise to one day make it out of Luton to chase their dreams in the big city. Fast forward to 1987 where Javed and Matt are now in high school still chasing their dreams. Matt dreams to be the next New Wave synth superstar (which by the way, the movie’s soundtrack includes some of my favorite English New Wave acts!) and Javed aspires to write. As high school students, their friendship has developed into one where both still believe they can make it out of Luton. At the same time, Javed becomes more keen at the discrimination and racism placed on his family living in working-class England. His family lives in a modest flat where his dad is unemployed and his mother keeps the family afloat as a launderer for the community. Javed’s father can be described as strong willed family man with strong pride for his family and culture, but stubborn to not see the discrimination apparent in his current living situation. Javed tries to keep his own dreams alive, yet he also realizes that his family and community is suffering due to the conservative Thatcher era policies.

Javed is at a crossroads on trying to understand where his life will take him and whether Luton is the place where he belongs for his aspirations to grow. His life path is further tested after he has a encounter with a skinhead who tells him “Pakis” do not belong in Luton. He is frustrated on his current life until one fateful lunch period, his Sikh classmate, Roops, tells him that “The Boss” understands their world. Javed questions Roops and his belief that the songs of Bruce Springsteen can help him navigate all of his life situations. Roops, determined to convince Javed, proceeds to loan Javed his cassettes (this is the 80s) of “Born in the USA” and “Born to Run”. Later that evening, Javed listens to the tapes on his Walkman and thus, begins his journey of self-discovery and cultural pride with the assistance of Bruce Springsteen.

What I loved about this movie was how the director, Gurinda Chadha, visualizes how Javed sees and interprets the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. His first listen of “Dancing in the Dark” is portrayed as a montage of seeing the lyrics of despair and desire circling Javed’s headphones and eventually spiraling into a literal whirlwind of thoughts and ideas that spin his writings out of his bedroom window. The director’s creativeness in portraying Javed’s enthusiasm in discovering that Roops was right and that Springsteen’s lyrics reflected his plight and challenges was brilliant to watch. Throughout the movie, the songs of Bruce Springsteen show up at pivotal moments of Javed’s personal development. Song lyrics are flashed on the side of buildings throughout Luton, lyrics follow Javed as he walks the streets, and lyrics appear larger than life in tunnels and walls following Javed. The director’s Indian movie culture of Bollywood appears also within the movie. One of these Bollywood touches can be found in the scene where Javed and Roops try to have their school radio station play Bruce Springsteen. The head DJ, who sees their music as not as hip as the current synth pop of that time, refuses to allow them to play Springsteen. What follows is a homage to both teen movies of the 80s and Bollywood joyfulness where dance and song break out spontaneously using “Born to Run” as the soundtrack:

To describe in detail what occurs throughout the movie would take away the joy and pain that the characters experience in the story. “Blinded by the Light” gave me pure joy on the power of music and a reminder that the injustices faced by immigrant communities in the 1980s still lives today worldwide. Music, however, knows no boundaries and the cross-cultural interactions between Javed and the music of Bruce Springsteen are the surprises that made this one of my favorite films of 2019. The movie also surprised me with life in working-class England during the late 1980s. The hardships that not only Javed’s family encounters, but also his childhood friend Matt and others in the film stand out in letting viewers understand why something like music allows them to continue to dream and to become resilient. Javed comes to own his Pakistani identity and working-class background. He realizes that Bruce Springsteen empowers him to fight back against those who not only share his musical passion, but also those who look to oppress him.

Upon viewing the film, I looked up the book upon which the movie is based on. The writer, Sarfraz Manzoor and his memoir Greetings from Bury Park is on my 2020 book read list. I found the movie to connect to my own experience as a Mexican American growing up in a similar working-class town and neighborhood – Euless, Texas. My preference to the 80s synth pop of the Pet Shop Boys, the Eurythmics, New Order, and Depeche Mode (to name a few) was largely due how the music spoke to those who were introverted and on the fringes of the preppie and materialistic youth culture of that time. I definitely did not match the “goth New Wave” image, but the music and lyrics of these groups spoke to me. I owned my Mexican identity, but I also owned my lonely, shy, somewhat reclusive self and my upbringing in an area of the suburbs that did not have the levels of income surrounding it. “Blinded by the Light” reminded me of my youth and personal development in the 80s. I highly recommend it to be reminded of the power of music and The Boss.

“Parasite”

Where to begin with my #1 pick for 2019, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”? It’s an extremely dark comedy, it’s a biting commentary on social class and how we treat those at lower and upper levels of income, it’s a tragedy at the highest levels, and it’s confounding, providing one of the strangest “WTF” moments on film. I loved it and it is definitely a film that requires thinking and deep reflection after viewing:

The less I write about this movie, the better it is to not spoil any of the many surprises found in this brilliant film. The trailer gives the slightest of peeks on the many twists and turns found in this movie.

I found this movie to have three acts: the plan, the plan played out, and what happens when a plan vanishes? The idea of having a “well thought-out plan” is a theme found in the movie. Obviously, when you view the movie trailer, you can sense that the story involves how one family infiltrates another to find financial opportunities. Oh, that is just the tip of the iceberg! While that is a primary focus, the movie actually is a biting satire on how social class dictates the human psyche. Who are the victims in the movie? Those taking advantage of those more fortunate or those who take advantage of the labor and work of those in the lower rungs so that upper-class individuals can enjoy the comforts provided to them. When viewing the movie, you start to believe that the film portrays this theme vividly….then the rug gets pulled completely under you in the third act.

What the third act has will have you re-evaluating the entire storyline. However, the theme of social class still is apparent. The movie is titled “Parasite” and what you know about parasites from biology or other science courses is probably helpful in providing a symbolic interpretation of the movie. In some reviews and essays on the film, I read that parasites live off their hosts and there is a constant competition on who will get the most from the host when other parasites are found. Thus, the real question of this movie is who exactly is the “host”? One minor spoiler is that the house where the wealthy Park family lives is, in my opinion, a major character in the film. I will leave it at that and do know that the house, while splendid in its modern architecture, is a house filled with laughter, secrets, horror, and tragedy. In some way, houses across all social classes have these elements. How we deal with them as humans provides a real look at our humanity. Happiness can be found in a sub-basement apartment and terror can be found in a multimillion dollar mansion. “Parasite” reminds the viewer that just when a well thought out plan appears to be working, sometimes having no plan might be the best route to take. When you watch “Parasite”, I recommend going in with no plan and see how you come out after viewing.

In my Facebook post immediately after viewing the film, I have it a rare “two thumbs up and two toes up”, which means this was a definite “Ric Flick”. One that I will enjoy viewing again.

It was a good movie year and I know some good flicks will be coming in 2020. Some popular and “Ric Flicks” already on my radar include:

  1. 1917
  2. Color Out of Space
  3. Wonder Woman: 1984
  4. In the Heights

I’m looking forward to watching stories that take me to unexpected and surprising places.

Onward!

Social Class, Confidence & Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”

During the November midterm elections, much was made regarding a “migrant caravan”.  Numerous local, state, and national politicians (including our president) made much ado about the how these men, women, and children from Central America would bring a variety of societal ills to our country.  Conservative commentators raised fear and worry by claiming these individuals only mean to break the law and cause harm to innocent Americans.  A full month after the elections, the chaos and anarchy dreamed up by nationalist figures has yet to occur along our border. The president’s call for military presence was largely aimed to boost egos and win political races at the expense of service men and women. Today, the United States being seen as a beacon of hope and prosperity continues to be eroded. Tucker Carlson even eluded in his most recent rant that immigrants make America “dirtier” and “poorer”.  Central in all these debates is knowledge that Latina/o/x communities are the recipients of stereotypes, discrimination, hatred, fear, and blame.

Yet, for all these discussions on Latina/o/x immigrants, much of American society takes advantage of these individuals in our economic and social environments. In the comfortable surroundings of my middle-class neighborhood, I see how my neighbors depend on a mostly Latina/o labor force to care for lawns, housekeeping, and handiwork. Some would believe that Latina/o/x immigrants come into our country expecting a free ride or taking away benefits from others.  I do not see this when I look out my window to see these individuals working morning, noon, and night. Work is respected and earned.  The narrative that Latina/o/x immigrants bring harm, drugs, and gangs is, to use a favorite phrase since 2016, “fake news”.

Knowing how I feel about immigrant rights and trying to understand the root of how immigrants are perceived and treated are a few reasons why Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” was on my must-see list of holiday movies.  Cleo, the central focus of the movie, is one of the most emotionally realized characters put on film.  From what I read, Cuaron intentionally sought an actress with indigenous features to portray Cleo, who is modeled after the director’s beloved caretaker and nanny, Libo, who is mentioned at the very end of the film. Yalitza Aparicio, who was a pre-school teacher prior to acting in her first film, captures all the emotions beautifully her character Cleo faces.  The one fascinating aspect of Ms. Aparicio’s role is how she develops Cleo into a confident, proud, and respected figure during the course of one year, 1971.

Cleo is the epitome of many things that make us believe in true form of humanity, in my opinion.  Without giving away too much of the movie’s story, in the course of one year, she faces challenges and situations which would make normal individuals question their faith, trust in others, pride, society, and even nature itself.  Yet, Cleo remarkably overcomes each of these challenges with one thing she realizes come the end of that tumultuous year in Mexico – her confidence.

[A few minor spoilers ahead!] One of the things I love about Alfonso Cuaron’s movies is his use of subtle symbolism and visuals.  “Roma” is filled with these cues, which makes me want to watch the film one, two, three more times.  One interesting visual that caught my attention is the frequent appearance of an airplane in flight.  I took this visual as Cuaron’s way of letting us know Cleo’s mindset at that moment.  Is the plane landing?  Is the plane leaving?  In some scenes, especially the beautiful opening when a precise shot of the plane is reflected off a puddle of water, the plane foretells a significant event in Cleo’s life.  After viewing, I interpreted the plane as Cleo’s life path that maybe she’s considering.  Maybe she wants to leave the life of a live-in servant to a middle-class family to escape to another place.  Maybe she could see a peaceful (yet dusty and blurry) future with someone who doesn’t really love her back.  In the end, I loved how Cuaron uses this subtle visual to add to Cleo’s story. 

Cuaron again uses a baby to help his characters and the viewers understand the delicacy of humankind.  Again, new life in the world as viewed by Cuaron is tested in ways that is gut-wretching, yet hopeful.  As in this powerful scene from his dystopian vision of the future in Great Britain, “Children of Men”:

New life in the world is tested on day one.  In “Roma”, Cleo emerges from this challenge with a mixture of doubt and sadness on how fate questions her connection to humanity.  Yalitza Aparacio deserves an Oscar nomination just for the facial expressions she was able to produce in this portion of the movie.  Some actresses grandstand their pivotal scenes with shouts and emotional overkill.  Here, Yalitza (Cleo) connects with the viewer with what she doesn’t say and what she finds difficult to express.  It is a powerhouse of a performance. 

One of the most remarkable scenes in “Roma” is the re-enactment of the Corpus Christi Thursday Massacre.  Viewed from the window of a furniture store, the chaos and terror is capture in one unexpected moment of violence.  Again, Cuaron digs into his memory of this sad part of Mexican history which likely impacted his life.  Researching this event in the movie, I found the following explaining the chaos visualized in the film and the connection Cleo personally has to this horrific event:

https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/Mexico-Marks-1971-Halconazo-Student-Massacre-with-Protest-20160610-0027.html

What “Roma” captures with Cleo is her development into someone who always had tremendous confidence and strength, even among all the personal and natural disasters that came her way.  Which is the reason I loved this movie.  Without giving to much away, the director beautifully symbolizes her rise in respect and honor among the family members she cares for in Mexico City (plane visual included). After viewing, I equated this confidence with reasons why fear and distrust is placed among today’s immigrant population.  Those who see immigrants as making the United States “dirtier” are far from the truth.  For those we label as immigrants – or shall we say humans – they truly are beautiful, and they realize that.  People like Cleo and her best friend are part of one strong community others do not fully understand (or choose not to).  They support each other and when all hell breaks loose, they are resolute in their recovery.  Respect and honor is not something that is given, it is earned through tireless effort and diligence.   Individuals in Cleo’s world are treated with innocence, understanding, and most importantly love.  When not reciprocated, the idea that deep down people are still good keeps life going. All of these qualities and more make those individuals who lack this in their daily lives jealous. For them, gone is compassion, instead replaced by hatred. A life of privilege is a life that is unfulfilled. Unlike Cleo, you do not face challenges that test you.  Avoiding these on your own choosing makes you vulnerable to the stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination that creates an easy, yet desolate, path of living life.  In the end, Cleo continues living life on her own terms, with the knowledge that she will only get stronger at each passing year.

“Roma” for me will be a movie that I can say impacted me for years to come. Film is art that I cherish and while some movies I view are lovingly called “Ric Flicks”, they embody what I want cinema to create – emotional reaction, character connection, and visual immersion. “Roma” had all of these and more.  Yes, you can say I give this film 5 stars (out of four)!   It does not have scenes that end in 1-minute, it is purposely slow paced, and interestingly does not have a musical soundtrack, just natural noise from the surroundings.  If you want a movie that will make you believe in the true beauty of understanding who you are in this chaotic world, I urge you to see “Roma”.

Onward.  

“He is.”