The Island of Misfit Thinkers

In this guest post, Hailey Kaufman tells us about a new tradition she began at her university. For students whose belief is unbelief, this tradition provides a safe place for questioning, discussing, and brain-bending. It shows us that friendship, support, and belonging can be found for misfit thinkers, even outside the confines of traditional religion. 

Every Tuesday night, I take a few hundred steps across campus to Webster University’s shiny new business building. By this time of night I’ve given up on my cute girl disguise and thrown on something comfortable: knee socks, moccasins, and almost unfailingly a pair of breezy Thai pants. There is never much to carry with me, just my ideas and assumptions.

The building smells of paint and briefcases. Night class attendees are filtering out, heading to their cars in the parking garage across the street. I wind around the hallways until I find a handful of people lingering at the front of Room 102. They draw on the marker board, leaving blasphemous messages in the corners for students to discover the next day. They have the projector on, and they’re watching something that tickles their remorseless sense of humor – or just videos of kittens.

Eventually we decide to discuss whatever was agreed upon, and a few tables are arranged into a cluster. We gather around them and talk. For some of us, this is the only room on campus, maybe even in our lives as a whole, where we are safe in our skepticism. We can express our most controversial doubts and revel in whatever we find moving, all without fear of scoffs or criticism for being “disrespectful”.

By the time we check our watches (if we haven’t already been kicked out of this room we never reserve) it’s eleven at night. For an hour and a half we’ve chattered, made propositions, disagreed, laughed, maybe even become angry. Some of us leave with unchanged convictions, some with notebooks full of new ideas hastily scratched in before they could escape us.

I walked into my college career determined to join a club of secular students. In the end, with the help of a news-savvy fallen Catholic, a wistful science enthusiast, and another introverted freshman looking for a community, I had to create my own.

Gradually, one person at a time, we developed a small group of regulars. A vegan punk rocker, an anglophilic rat owner, a poet with a Cheetohs addiction, a wannabe viking with a scar through his eyebrow. While I had always sought to model it after a much larger, more seasoned club elsewhere, it refused to become anything other than what it should have been: an island of misfit thinkers.

While the secular movement struggles to develop non-religious communities, young people across the country are working on a small scale, crawling into discussion burrows and talking amongst themselves. Sometimes they crawl out to broadcast their thoughts and values, but there’s something wonderful about talking in small circles. That’s where minds are changed. It’s where budding skeptics can feel true purpose, and a kind of intellectual intimacy, in the domain where religion is absent.

This has become my tradition – one of thought, humor, and camaraderie – and I wouldn’t trade it for all the free Tuesday nights in the world.

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Blooming Bridges

Today’s guest post for our Traditions theme comes from artist and social activist Yvonne Osei. Originally from Ghana and now graduated from Webster University in Saint Louis, Yvonne connects diversity,human complexities, and humanitarian issues to show the beautiful tradition of togetherness and cultural belonging across borders and boundaries.  More of her phenomenal work can be found at  her website

 Blooming Bridges
 
 
 
Artwork Details
Name: Blooming Bridges
Medium: Photography
Size: 20″ by 30″
Description: “Blooming Bridges” reflects diversity through a range of skin tones, hand gestures and vibrant colors coming together to enunciate ideas of connectivity. The work is a commentary on human solidarity in a contemporary world that continues to share ideas on a global scale.

The photograph was taken during a performance with four individuals from diverse cultures. They each had a different color in their hands and a task to interact with one another. The underlying principle was to make a mark on others metaphorically showing how several influences come to play in collective art making. Through the blends of color and outburst of energy in the varying movements of hands, there is a resounding affirmation of unity formed.

The title “Blooming Bridges” captures positivity and growth in the act of joining these separate hands as one entity, as each hand plays a vital part in building support systems for the others.

 
 

If you love me, hold not off.

Today’s post is on the work of Prison Performing Arts, which was featured in this month’s Spare Change Spotlight. Meg Sempreora gives us a small glimpse of the wisdom she has shared and found during her work with incarcerated people at Prison Performing Arts. Meg is also an associate professor and the director of literature emphasis at Webster University.

My first prison class was in a small, warm room.  Thirty-one men had given up Monday Night Football to sit in little plastic chairs, each balancing a book and a pad on his lap. They looked a bit like visiting parents in a classroom of small chairs.  The men fully ringed the room, backing up against the chalkboard.

I almost missed this experience, this most rewarding of teaching.  I almost said “no” to the men and women so hungry for this opportunity, citizens who will one day be out in the world with us. I initially thought that my privileged background disqualified me as a source of knowledge for these students.  But because I said “yes” I have experienced—at three Missouri prisons—some of the most rewarding teaching of my life.  As part of Prison Performing Arts, a non-profit organization created by one amazing woman, Agnes Wilcox I began teaching in 2000 with Act 2 of Hamlet, and have now worked on Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Oedipus RexOedipus at Colonus, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest,Gogol’s The Inspector General, and Mary Zimmerman’s contemporary interpretation of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses. As this particular team of actors was not only untrained in acting, but also almost entirely unfamiliar with Shakespeare, a few volunteer professors from St. Louis universities provided seminars throughout the semester on the world of the Renaissance and Shakespeare in particular, on acting and speech, and especially on reading the language of the play. One or two acts of a play is studied for a full semester, bringing the men deeper and deeper into an understanding, not only of the language, characters, and themes of the drama, but also of themselves.

The scholarly seminars are followed by casting and an intense rehearsal period with Agnes, a professional theater director: each line is examined; speeches are memorized; and men practice in the yard and in their cells; Agnes gathers costumes from willing donors or second-hand stores; and finally three performances crown the semester’s work. Fellow inmates attend on the first two evenings, then family, friends, and supporters of Prison Performing Arts from St. Louis.

My self-doubts were answered that first evening; the men taught me so much with their earnest hunger, courtesy, and dauntless willingness to repeat countless times, “What does that mean?”  What I learned that first night and have confirmed after  thirteen years of teaching dramatic literature in Missouri prisons is that I need to ask difficult, interesting questions—the same ones that I ask my undergrads; I need to listen hard when my incarcerated students answer, because they will offer answers that I have not heard before.  Their answers come from a deeper place, or a more remote place, or a hungrier place.

 If you love me, hold not off.

Every class is filled with moments of discovery, of drama.  During that first class, the students were reading one sentence each around the circle in order to hear Shakespeare’s language, ask questions, learn vocabulary, and pull everybody into the enterprise of making meaning.  Many of the men are not readers, and this story is about one such student.  I shall call him Tom.  It was Act 2.2, and Hamlet, not sure whom he can trust, is urging his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to level with him and tell him if they really came on their own to visit him, or, if they were sent for by King Claudius to spy on him.  (We know that R & G were brought there to be spies.  We watch Hamlet deeply hurt, discovering his friends’ betrayal.)

We moved around the circle slowly reading the scene—Hamlet keeps probing; R &G keep evading his questions. When Tom’s turn came, an urgent line of Hamlet’s fell to him. Hamlet pleads with his old friends to level with him.

Tom looked hard at his book and read his line silently, then looked up and, speaking directly to the next man in the circle, who turned to face him—as if they were alone reading the scene—Tom said, simply, deeply, “If you love me, hold not off.” The men were silent for a moment.  They had heard not just the words, but also the meaning: Hamlet is a man asking for the truth from his friends; he is invoking their love for him as a righteous means to that truth. Hamlet’s unguarded, honest moment became Tom’s own unguarded moment. As a brave, engaged reader, he risked saying “If you love me” without a smirk, without an embarrassed chuckle, and, because of his effort, the class took a leap.  They all understand conning, betrayal, and the need for true friends. The nature of Rosencrantz and Guildenster ’s possible turning point—from paid deception back to friendship— was made clear to the men in the room by Tom’s authentic line reading. The stakes for these false friends were high: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do “hold off”; they continue on their course of deception and ultimately they perish.

I am grateful that I said “yes” to this experience.  “If you love me, hold not off” my students say to me with their desire to learn and, as adequately as I can, I have answered.

 

Down the Drain

Today’s post is by Maximilian Reid, a Webster University alumni and entrepreneur. He talks about what happens when we are judged for our creativity. The wisdom Maximilian gained from his loss shows us all that our work is valuable , that our prayers matter, and that we must keep the faith, no matter if that faith is in God, ourselves, or just in the stories we create. 

My greatest regret in life was my decision to destroy my hand-drawn Pokemon Encyclopedia in the 7th grade.

When I was in middle school, I was so enamored with the magical, monster-filled world of Pokemon that I dreamed up new creatures with fabulous powers and fitting names. I had so many ideas that I just had to write them down and draw them out. I acquired a stack of colorful construction paper and a handful of fresh pens. I picked a spot on the floor and I created.

Not a naturally gifted artist, I mustered every ounce of concentration into perfecting the details on each of my imaginary creatures. I drew a dragon-type Pokemon with a body as large as a skyscraper and a mouth as wide as a cave. I wrote a scientific description of a new type of Pikachu. I documented the mesmerizing behaviors of my Ghost types and outlined the weaknesses of my Robot types, and I bound the multi-colored pages together into a book. I knew it was a book because I stapled the papers three times on the left. On the cover, I wrote the title in large, bold words: “Pokemon Encyclopedia by Max Reid”.

As I gazed upon my completed masterpiece, a shiver coursed through my body and made the tiny hairs on my arms stand on end. I had just written my first book. It had a title, it said it was by Max Reid, and it was 30 pages long. Pages. I wrote something with turnable pages.

I felt I had made something wonderful and original, and I had to share my book with my friends. I brought the Pokemon Encyclopedia to school the morning after I finished it.

“Look what I made!” I said to my classmates. “It’s a Pokemon Encyclopedia. It took me weeks to make. Look!”

I handed my book to a classmate, and he swiped through the pages too quickly to read through the powers and origins of each creature.

“What?” he said. “You still think Pokemon is cool? And you made your own? ”

“Your drawings kinda suck.”

“Why would you make Pikachu transform into that?”

I was lonely, and I didn’t want to be the weird kid. So I shrugged and took my book back.

“Yeah, it is kind of crappy. I made this, like, two years ago. I don’t like it either.”

When I got home, I took the Pokemon Encyclopedia out of my backpack and flipped through a few pages. I just wanted one last look. I took the book to the kitchen sink and held my Pokemon Encyclopedia under running water, and I rotated it until the ink swirled into a grey whirlpool down the drain. I tore the soggy paper into fist-sized clumps over the kitchen garbage can, and I tamped down the pulp into a mess of discarded credit card offers and utility bill notices.

I didn’t run hot water over all my writings because I had one bad day. I was an adolescent who didn’t adhere to or pick up on social cues very well, desperate to destroy all the things that made me weird and unlikable.

Years later after that painful purge of creative writing, I’ve slowly learned to take pride in my work, to take great care not to crumple a draft or toss out an idea too quickly. I see the stories I choose to tell as an emotional, psychological history in progress. I preserve all my ideas – good and bad, insightful and tasteless – and I read through them from time to time to remind myself of my intellectual roots. During my later teenage years, I kept a binder filled with sheets of paper on which I jotted poems, states of mind, prayers to God, lists of goals, and story ideas.

And I know I’ve since done an awful job of taking on a conventional personality, and for that, at least, I’m proud.

 

For more of Maximilian’s work check out Les MiseraBaristas on YouTube.

Breath and Spirit

Today’s post is from Hailey Kaufman. Hailey is a student of  philosophy, biology, and religion at Webster University in St. Louis, MO, where she also organizes the school’s secular student group, encourages interfaith dialogue, and furthers scientific understanding. You can find more of her work on Tumblr and on her personal blog

What are the origins of the word “spirit”? Middle English borrowed it from the Old French word espirit, which could have referred to a variety of things but overall expressed the life essence, the vibrancy of life or something resembling life. Espirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which means breath.

Breath. Let’s think about that for a second. At its heart, to be spiritual means to exchange a life-giving wind with something, in some way. Breath is a fundamental constituent of a living being. When we breathe, we exchange particles with the world around us. To breathe is to ingest one thing for ourselves while chemically changing it into something else, then releasing it back. It’s cyclical, simple but powerful at the same time.

One of my religious studies professors once pointed out to me the resemblance some holy words have to the act of breathing. Amen, a kind of exhale to a prayer. Ra, the Egyptian sun god. Yahweh is a powerful word, so mighty that saying it has historically been taboo.

Think of the way we use the concept of breath in everyday language. We might say something about which we are passionate “breathes life” into us. When we feel existentially stressed or cramped, we say we need to “take a breather” or find “room to breathe” To return to our senses during a panicky moment, we “take a deep breath.”

This all indicates that for us, breath is to some extent associated with a much-needed sense of peace. Whether that peace comes in the form of relaxing us during our suffering, or whether it comes when we feel a connection to something meaningful, the principle is the same: breath is an orienting force, something that stills our worries and brings us into homeostasis.

Gods, prayers, angels, ghosts, fairies, alternative medicine…none of these things are necessary for a sense of spirituality. What is necessary is breath. What fills us with spirit can be anything that leaves us feeling tremendously small yet linked to a larger picture, like a knot in a net. There’s a fire in the heart that stirs us as that breath passes through. Spirituality is nothing more than that fire, and it burns somewhere in all of us.