Ending Hunger in Today’s Society

Abbey Riesset reflects on the issue of hunger, how she’s working to address it, and what she thinks can be done to combat it.

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Almost 1 billion people around the globe go to bed hungry every night, 200 million of which are children, as Stop Hunger Now shares. When most people hear the word “Hunger”, they think of starvation and one’s body consuming itself. But the term hunger encompasses much more.

Hunger is essentially the result of food insecurity- the lack of access to enough food to satisfy the basic need. Food insecurity is a major issue within the U.S. and often contributes to the high obesity rates. Most of the time, people who deal with food insecurity rely on food pantries and food stamps. It is extremely difficult to find healthy nutritious options from these resources. It is also cheaper to buy unhealthy snacks to help reduce the physical feeling of hunger. A Place At The Table  is an excellent film that discusses this issue further (and it’s on Netflix!).

As the Director of Campus Kitchen at Elon, I’ve had the opportunity to organize the annual Stop Hunger Now event on campus. Stop Hunger Now is a nonprofit organization based out of Raleigh that provides international aid relief in an effort to end hunger. They host meal packaging events throughout communities around the nation and educate people about Hunger. Each meal packaged can feed up to six people or one family, and the meals get distributed throughout orphanages and schools.  I love being a part of this event because it helps put Hunger into perspective. If Stop Hunger Now used machines to package the meals, they would be able to produce a greater number, but then the human element of people helping people would be lost. It is this human element that spreads awareness and leads to action.

In my opinion the way to end hunger is through education. I personally believe every elementary school around the nation should have a community garden. It is important to teach children at a young age how to grow their own fruits and vegetables. Educating children about nutrition and allowing them to eat the food they grow is just as important as being physically active. I believe community gardening in schools will give children a sense of pride and children will come to love eating healthy. I also think parks should have community gardens as well. The produce grown can be distributed to food pantries and reach those experiencing food insecurity.

A call to action for all of us… There are a lot of social issues throughout the globe which need our attention. At times, I feel overwhelmed by all of them. I desire to be a part of the change that needs to happen in order to improve education, eliminate homelessness, provide health care to all, end hunger, stop human trafficking, etc. I have come to the realization it’s impossible for one person to tackle all of these issues. Thus, I have devoted my time and energy to two specific social issues which are very important to me: hunger and homelessness. I chose these issues because food and shelter are the basic necessities of life. It is hard for me to image not knowing where my next meal is coming from or worrying about where I can find shelter for a night.

I encourage everyone reading this blog, if you haven’t already done so, to pick a social issue and become passionate about it. Devote your life to that issue(s) by spreading awareness and making an impact on those affected by it. In my opinion, Mother Teresa said it best, “I never look at the masses as my responsibility. I look at the individual. I can love only one person at a time. I can feed only one person at a time. Just one, one, one.”

Continuing the Discussion…

Welcome Back!

This semester the Awareness Blog will continue to serve as a place for meaningful discussion and reflection on social issues. We’re hoping to get a lot of guest writers to share thoughts on current events and various issues… which means we need YOUR help! Please contact me at rfishman@elon.edu if you would be interested in writing a blog post this semester. It can be on anything that you feel compelled to share your opinion on or spread awareness about– basically if you’re passionate about an issue, write about it!

If you want to get involved with one of Elon’s three awareness organizations, now’s the perfect time to do it! E-mail:

  • Amnesty International:  amnesty@elon.edu
  • Oxfam:  oxfam@elon.edu
  • Invisible Children:  invisiblechildren@elon.edu

Also, make sure to check out the Events page on this blog to see what our organizations are doing and what social justice-related events are happening on campus!

This year the Awareness Team is going to really focus on “Going Deeper” and challenging ourselves and the Elon student body to take action and to see awareness as the pathway to action. We can collectively create change because, as Nelson Mandela reminds us…

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The Artifacts of Community

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By: Mat Goldberg

What is a community? What does it mean that I never imagined being a part of a community of people facing homelessness? In leaving my internship this Wednesday with the Artifacts Cooperative, a collective of artists affiliated with the Interactive Resource Center (IRC), a homeless day center, I realized we had become a family. It was not always this way. At first, I was a stranger, met with a welcoming smile and a quiet voice of distrust. I was seen as an authority; not a friend. And me, I entered the doors of the IRC holding on to the iron sculpted handles shaped as spoons, with a questioning look, asking why. Nevertheless, I was excited and eager to make a difference. I remember the moments artists called me Mr. Mat or sir and would wait for my direction. Or the times I scheduled a meeting and all the seats were empty, but mine. Regardless of the challenges, I committed to being a constant and warm presence and strived to build relationships. Now almost two years later it felt hard to leave. I remember Sandra Luckey, an Artifacts artist’s words as I was saying my goodbyes “There are no shut doors and no noses in the air. We are free.” Together we had created a space, a community, free of judgment, for everyone to be seen, heard, and respected.

This experience has encouraged me to think a lot about the ideas of community. What changed from my first day to today? How did we create this community? How do we build community in the future? Liz Seymour, the Executive Director at the IRC introduced me to Scott Peck’s work and his four stages of community: pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and true community.

  1. Pseudocommunity – An environment of fakeness. Members are extremely pleasant with one another and avoid all disagreement.
  2. Chaos – Conflict. Individual differences come out in the open and the group attempts to reconcile them. It is a stage of uncreative and unconstructive fighting and struggle.
  3. Emptiness – The way through chaos to true community is through emptiness. It is the hardest and crucial stage of community development. It means members emptying themselves of barriers to communication. It calls for vulnerability and ownership of our own biases, prejudices, and expectations.
  4. True Community – True community is both joyful and realistic. The transformation of the group from a collection of individuals into true community requires sacrifice and understanding.

Through my work with Artifacts I have been a part and seen our group progress through the stages of community. I did not realize this evolution until I was faced with emptying my own perceptions. It was in a moment of conflict when an artist raised his voice at me and said “You all must think we’re dumb, while you drive around in your fancy car with your college education.” His word stung. He saw through my effort of wearing bland t-shirts and loose fitted jeans. There were just some things I had little control over. So, he saw my privilege. What mattered more was that I realized my privilege wasn’t something I could deny or hide. This recognition signified my growing understanding of true community. I learned to appreciate the diversity of a community and acknowledge we each had unique strengths, roles, and stories.

In this process of empting myself and taking time to truly listen to the artists’ words and thoughts I learned the importance of dignity and respect. “We are not homeless, we are people” was the common phrase spoken. I realized in my effort to advance Artifacts forward I sometimes pronounced my idea without fostering collective ideas and decisions and unknowingly stunned voices and expression. These mistakes fueled my passion and my willingness to learn from the artists. I began to enter our meetings with white paper to take notes and jot ideas together rather than come and distribute set-agendas and plans. And what was amazing was the same person who yelled at me weeks before was now teaching me. “You see those doors. I helped design them. We chose spoons because were scooping out the bad and only leaving the good.” I smiled. I now understood.

As I stood readying to leave my last meeting. I was proud to call myself a member of this community. Becky, an Artifacts artist erupts with a smile “We are family. And you what I have your cell and email and I am not going to let you forget it.” This was no longer a weekly service site, this was a gathering of friends and family.

Why did I never image this could be a part community? This question and my experiences at the IRChas led me to believe there is a fundamental origin to community that Peck does not identify and discuss and that is the invisible community. I believe the invisible community is the stage of unawareness, a point of denying the potential communities that exist around us. I lived in a stage of unawareness. Living in Alamance County with 11% of people facing homelessness, I treated these numbers as statistics indicating a social issue, rather than listening and realizing these are members of my community. Until we are able to see the invisible communities we are unable to engage in the process of building a community and will continue to perpetuate a divided approach to solutions. The IRC has awakened me to reimagine community and to appreciate all the voices in room and to ultimately desegregate myself from the problem and solution and to just connect.

I still am uncertain of the definition, of what a community means. Nonetheless, I now understand that we all should take greater concern to broaden our definition and recognize the neighbors and people living besides us are a part of this. Community is more than people of shared values, religion, appearance, etc., it is a collaboration and sense of shared responsibility among all people.

 

 

Words and deeds to honor thee

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By: Kyle Whitaker

I’ve heard that it’s always good to start any kind of talk or workshop with a question. This strategy, in theory, immediately puts the focus on the audience instead of the speaker and, in doing so, gives listeners a chance to reflect and make a personal connection with the topic. As an Elon student, I’ve had the opportunity to use this approach in many different scenarios (with varying degrees of success, I must admit); I think it’s only appropriate, then, that I keep it up by starting this post in a similar fashion.

Question: Do you know Elon’s alma mater?

Let me begin by acknowledging a few things:

  1. This isn’t going to be a guilt-trip blog post. I’m not into guilt trips, and I don’t think they ever really work as well as we’d like to think they do. You can read on in safety and comfort, my dear friends—there’s no guilt trip here.
  2. The alma mater and the fight song aren’t the same thing, so. Let’s clear that one up pretty quickly ;)
  3. I recognize that this question can be answered pretty quickly, without much thought or immediate reflection. You can probably expect to give one of three answers: “Yes, I do!” or, “No, I don’t…” or (and this is maybe where many of you are), “Eh…I kind of know it? Does that count?” Either way, this isn’t exactly the kind of question that you would ideally want to open a conversation with.
  4. I promise I have a point, though.
  5. Lastly: I’m all about honesty and transparency in my conversations with others, especially when it’s something I care about. I’m therefore compelled to admit that my response to my own question falls somewhere between the “Yes, I do!” and the “Eh…kind of” categories.

In all honesty, Elon’s alma mater is a bit long, kind of slow, and actually pretty hard to sing along with. The tune is oddly reminiscent of an old church hymn, and the words aren’t exactly the most exciting pop lyrics to ever hit the Top 40 charts.

In short, it’s not surprising that many of us don’t know the alma mater. If we’re being honest, it’s often just another part of the Elon pomp and circumstance that many of us go along with half-heartedly, never giving it more than a moment’s thought during Call to Honor or Convocation or wherever it happens to pop up during on-campus events throughout the year.

I’d like to propose that we think about it a little differently, though.

I could spend a lot of time explaining what the alma mater actually is: how the words “alma mater” are Latin for “foster mother,” how the song is set to an old Latin carpe diem/ drinking song, or how the university recently added a new verse to celebrate the quasquicentennial (that means 125th, y’all).

But I’m not planning on doing that because you can just click the links and read about it. Instead, I’d like to focus on the one line that some of us actually know and remember from the alma mater, because I think it says a lot about our role as students and, for many of us, as soon-to-be alumni:

 “Alma mater, we will cherish thee.”

Despite the fact that these words contain the highest note in the song (and the hardest interval to sing, in my oh-so-musical opinion), I think their repetition is important. The refrain of our alma mater is a call to arms, a promise that we make to Elon whenever we sing it: “We will cherish thee.” The English major in me is fascinated by this word choice. William D. Ellis (the poet who wrote the original lyrics) could have chosen any number of words for this line—what led him to use cherish?

Aside from the obvious answer—that cherish is a sentimental word that happens to have enough syllables to fit the rhythm and meter of the line—I think we have a lot to consider when we say that we will cherish Elon, the place many of us have called home for the past four years. We’re not saying that we will honor Elon, or that we will respect Elon, or even that we will love Elon. To cherish is something entirely different, carrying with it a concept of love that moves beyond simply posting a photo of our oak sapling on Instagram or contributing to the senior class gift so we can take a photo in Fonville Fountain.

I’d like to argue that, when we sing about cherishing this place, this foster mother that has supported our growth and transformation for so long, we are committing to an active choice, one that requires we actually do something as alumni of this institution. To pull from a cliché trope that I typically try to avoid, I decided to let Mr. Webster do a bit of the talking. He says that to cherish means, “to hold dear; to feel or show affection for; to keep or cultivate with care or affection” (insert MLA citation here or just go Google it). To me, this means that when we promise to cherish Elon, we promise to hold on to our memories, to share them with others, and to ensure that future generations of students continue to make their own memories here. All of that sounds a bit hokey and intangible, but I think there are active steps we can take to make them a reality.

These steps are more obvious when we consider other perspectives on what it means to cherish. Some definitions include words like “defend,” “protect,” and “commemorate,” all of which imply a much more pointed and direct response. To some, cherishing Elon might mean that we continue to wear our Elon gear long after we’ve left, as a reminder that this place exists and that it has helped shape the path of our futures indefinitely. To others, it might mean that we stand up for our school when we read or see articles online that don’t seem to reflect the values we have come to understand here. And to some of us, it might seem that the best way to cherish our alma mater is by simply staying connected to the friends and family we have made during our time here.

I don’t pretend to be an expert. I’m sure there are hundreds of other ways that we can think about the idea of cherishing Elon, many of which fall far beyond my own understanding and capabilities. And I also don’t assume that all of us necessarily want to cherish this place; each of us has had a unique set of experiences as students at this university, some of which I’m sure we might want to change or forget about entirely. Elon isn’t perfect, and it isn’t always easy to cherish a place that hasn’t exactly lived up to our expectations.

I’d like to pose a challenge, then, particularly to the class of 2014. In nine days, we’ll gather together under the oaks to celebrate the end of our time at Elon. Part of the commencement ceremony will include, among other things, the singing of the alma mater. As you stand with your fellow graduates and sing along, think about the words you’re saying. What has Elon actually meant to you? How has it met your expectations, and in what ways do you hope to see it transform in the coming years? What are the values and ideals you take with you as you walk across that stage and into the next chapter of your life?

Elon, ever lead us on
To a bright and happy dawn;
Teach us still to love and pray,
Guide us to a nobler day.
Joyous music lies before us,
Memories to swell the chorus.
Alma Mater, we will cherish thee;
Alma Mater, we will cherish thee.

In the spirit of ending this post the way I began it, I have one more question:

How will you cherish this place? 

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Penguins

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By: Kim Lilienthal

Of all the things I tend to talk about and care about incessantly – education equity, words and language, writing, the environment, community engagement – there is perhaps one passion that has pervaded all of these interests; one love I’ve held close to my heart for my entire life: Penguins. I think being born in January had something to do with it. The remnants of Christmas and the two impending months of winter caused me to be born into a love for penguins simply because they were everywhere. I learned how to read when I was three or four and avidly read penguin fiction and nonfiction and learned about where they lived, how they formed communities, protected each other from predators, and suffered from human environmental impact. I used to tell people my career aspiration was to become a “penguin scientist” before realizing that science is actually really difficult for me to learn about and numbers aren’t my thing. Today, I’m still an avid reader and learner, and feel confident in my ability to say that humans can stand to learn so much from penguins.

Three recent experiences in my college life guided me to this conclusion:

1. I was visiting the Auckland Museum in New Zealand the summer after my first year of college and came face-to-face with a plaster replica of a prehistoric penguin that stood almost 5 feet tall and weighed well over 100 pounds. I cried. Penguins were once formidable creatures that would have been powerful predators of the sea (probably going after more than just krill). We should respect our modern penguins because of their awe-inspiring ancestors.

2. I was in a Barnes & Noble in Midlothian, Virginia after having been treated to my first legal drink in America. I was browsing the “Great Gift” books and came across a coffee table book by Jonathan Chester and Patrick Regan called Flipping Brilliant: A Penguin’s Guide to a Happy Life. I read it, naturally, and discovered that its pages contained everything I needed to know about leadership and service. I cried. I didn’t buy the book then, but later that summer a friend gave it to me, indicating that I was meant to do something with it. I brought it on Discovery, the First-Year Summer Experience I facilitated last summer and shared a bit of penguin wisdom with the group each night to kick off reflection.

3. Someone asked me what a feather-less penguin would look like. I Googled. I came across a story about a penguin born without feathers in a zoo in China whose parents rejected him. He had a condition where his body couldn’t absorb nutrients and was therefore unable to grow feathers. Zookeepers hand-fed him and took extra care of him until he was re-accepted into the community. I cried. Multiple times. In this moment, I realized that penguins were not perfect. They have the capability of hurting each other just like humans do, but are able to recover by showing compassion and acceptance. We, too, can recover.

Inspired by these three instances, I decided to explore how penguins are threaded through the social issues I care most about, and how they might be able to teach us how to alleviate them.

Penguins on Education Equity

Penguins don’t expressly teach their young the skills they need to survive. Instead, young penguins learn together in communities independent from their parents. Eventually, by observing examples and modeling behavior, young penguins eventually make the decision to jump into the ocean to search for their own food. They learn how to swim because they are empowered to discover it for themselves. This style of education allows penguins to learn at their own pace and to apply meaningful, real-world scenarios (like not starving) to their education.

After two years of research about critical thinking and education equity, it seems like our society needs a lot more emphasis on independent learning, student empowerment, and meaningful connections between school and real life. Everyone is capable of learning, but sheltered instruction might not be the best option. Human kids should get the chance to explore, take risks, observe numerous perspectives, and decide for themselves how they best can learn.

Penguins on Words and Language

Despite there being 17 different species of penguins living today, we tend to group them all together into their primary identity – penguin. We see a picture of a penguin and say “It’s a penguin,” not necessarily “It’s a Gentoo,” or “It’s a Humboldt.” Unless maybe you’re 6-year-old me glowing with delight at my new Penguin Encyclopedia.

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Why don’t we do that with people? While embracing identity and celebrating uniqueness is essential to an inclusive society, at our core we’re still all people. Just because the Little Blue is a little less black and white than most of the others doesn’t mean it is less penguin than the ones we see in March of the Penguins (Emperors). There are far too many instances throughout history in which diminishing groups of people solely to one facet of their shared identity resulted in pervasive dehumanizing attitudes, violence, and overall social injustice. Let’s look at people as people first, and use our communication skills to discover what identities make them unique.

Penguins on the Environment

Unlike penguins, humans don’t necessarily have to worry about predators in the environment. Even in places like Australia where it seems like 90% of the wildlife could easily kill you we don’t actively avoid “predators.” Despite our privilege of being at the top of the food chain, there is a growing crisis surrounding Nature Deficit Disorder, an idea first developed by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods. One of the key factors contributing to this deficit is the idea that playing outside is dangerous and risky, and children are much safer indoors. While it is certainly possible to get hurt outside by some unhappy accident, nature isn’t actively trying to eat us.

Penguins know nature is sometimes trying to eat them, but they choose to experience it fully. They know that whales, seals, or other predators are lurking in the water, but they also know they need to venture in anyway so they can eat. Sometimes, one penguin selflessly jumps in to test the waters and indicate to the others that it is safe to follow. At other times, a group of penguins may choose to sacrifice one to chance and push him in. Patrick Regan said it best in Flipping Brilliant: “It takes courage to be a leader. Are certain birds predisposed to take the plunge, or are they just unlucky enough to get pushed? We don’t know, but we do know that if no one leads, none will follow and all will go hungry.”

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Penguins on Community Building

Penguins are among the most social of all bird species and thrive on strong communities. They recognize that a community is only strong when its individual members are strong, so they try to accept all types. We all learned from Happy Feet that penguins mate for life, which is supposedly the traditional human ideal. However, many human relationships and family structures are changing, and penguins are way ahead of the times in realizing that is perfectly acceptable. Penguin parents frequently take turns raising their offspring, demonstrating that single parents, same-sex couples, or community parenting are all acceptable and valuable family structures.

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Further, migratory penguins return to the same breeding ground year after year. Regardless of where their migration patterns take them, when it is time to reunite and settle down, penguins clearly have an investment in their communities. We should do the same with our communities and hometowns – explore them, know their geography and their culture, form relationships with the individuals living there and try to nurture and sustain them.

Our communities, our identities, and our relationships could all benefit from learning a little bit from penguins. Let’s see how it goes.

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Phoenix Question: What is your creative outlet?

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Kim: I love making up hypothetical scenarios inspired by real things – like societies and people and environments. I think how much fiction I read as a child always got me thinking about “what ifs” and literary interpretation and analysis in college kept that imaginative spirit alive. I don’t really enjoy writing creatively myself, but I like thinking of new ways to look at what already exists. In my Shakespeare class last fall I was once accused of making “Shakespearean fanfiction” because I came up with so many possible scenarios for interpreting what characters were doing. It’s great with old literature because it is impossible to ever know what an author meant, so critical and creative thinking can really emerge.

Mat: Its interesting to see the diverse responses about our creative outlets because frequently when we ask people “Do you think your creative” the resounding answer is no. What do you think is the disconnect? For me my creative outlet is my writing and the moment when I overcome the scariest of the blank white page and find a voice for my story.

Cara: Mine is art journaling and i discovered it through an online course I took last fall!

 Paula: Like Evan, my creative outlet doesn’t lead to a definite product. My outlet is paying attention and thinking–finding and contemplating ideas–in order to understand and enjoy my world. When I was a journalist, a lot of these observations and ideas were recombined into stories. As a teacher, they are recombined into assignments, discussion, and occasionally research. As a technology junkie of the current age, you’ll find much of my thinking articulated on Facebook. I don’t write fiction or poetry. I don’t paint or draw or craft. I cook, but with a recipe. But I do think I’m creative, and I think what I’ve created–and continue to create–is a life for me and my family and friends and students and, well, anyone who comes into contact with me (like the two gentlemen this morning who heard me raving about the first strawberries of the season and who got explicit directions for where to locate the stand where they’re being sold and now I hope they are enjoying strawberries, too!).

Steve: I enjoy constructing crossword puzzles and sharing them with others. When I was an Elon student I was fortunate to have a few of them published in the Pendulum. Wouldn’t mind doing it again either!

Evan: My creative outlet is looking (yes looking!) in order to see and know things differently. This is not something I “discovered” rather it is something my discipline (Art History at Elon) taught me. I’ve dedicated my life to this process (and not just my scholarly life) and hope my looking (and the writing that comes from this looking) sparks debate, more thinking, and yes, looking.

Jason: My creative outlet is Twitter. It’s an artistic challenge to convey a message in 140 characters, which I found by tweeting!

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Sam: Dance. I grew up dancing since I could practically walk, so it has been a large part of my life. However, I did not necessarily understand or fully realize that dance has been an ‘outlet’ for me to destress and express myself. There is so much that can be said and explained through the movement of our bodies, and for me, much of that realization occurred when I got injured and could no longer dance. This happened towards the end of my high school ‘career’ which in turn (along with other things) prohibited me from pursuing dance as a major. Not having dance in my life full-time has definitely been a difficult thing, but I have found ways to keep it alive: taking a few classes here at Elon, choreographing pieces for shows, and of course, dancing in the kitchen, despite being on the second floor. Sorry neighbors below us! Dance has so much to offer and is truly therapeutic. I know it will always be apart of my life in some form or another, but I am excited to see how it will continue.

Sarah: I am obsessed with SnapChat. I take it very seriously. I found that I am very good at drawing with my finger and I am so proud of the snapsterpieces I create (SnapChat term, not mine). One of my favorite things to do is a series called Shark Week, where I filmed clips of people I run into and draw a shark eating them over the picture. There’s something very cathartic about SnapChat for me. I’m very much a control freak, but having that small piece of art available for only an hour reminds me to live in the present. I know that sounds crazy, but I’m very serious about SnapChat. I’m attaching my most recent SnapChat. I drew this one when I was feeling particularly blue about not having pets in my apartment complex.

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By: Anthony Weston

I teach a variety of courses here, but whenever I can I find a way to ask my students to chose totems: animals, or places, or forces of nature, with which they identify and whose power and magic in some way they feel they share. Many pick specific animals: Cat or Dog, Dragonfly, Elephant, Stringray, Deer. A runner may be Cheetah. Some pick favorite places, places that speak to them, like Beach. Some are waves, there is the occasional tree, sometimes Wind or Rain or Lightning or Sun. Other choices are more poignant. A Lousianian, post-Katrina, declared herself Hurricane. A partly Native American student told us he is Buffalo: in his dreams he becomes a buffalo, runs with his fellows, and can ask them to take him other places or into other identities in turn. And unlike most students, he did not choose this totem: it was his from birth, his clan animal.

Don’t think, I say, that you are doing all the choosing. It’s at least as true that our totems choose us. Are there animals that regularly come to you, in dreams or awake? What animals? Perhaps you have even had specific encounters, numinous or electrifying, that stay with you? Are there days when all the world seems alive to you and you are “in your element”? What is that element?

We take some time in special sessions to declare ourselves and then to speak from the totem’s place: to inhabit, as fully as we can, that animal being or natural place or force. Different classes unfold it differently. My last Global class spent most of the term representing world countries, organizations, and figures, taking part for example in a Model United Nations session representing a third of the Security Council. At the end, I said: now I invite you to embrace some standpoints beyond the human, and at the same time to come back to yourselves, especially as new college students in a stage of identity-seeking and -shifting. Are you alone in this, or do you – could you – have help: guides and identifications beyond the merely human? Who might they be? Students declared themselves right in class – eager and fascinated to hear what others had chosen, offering their own totems tentatively yet proudly – and right away we had a new “Council”, new lines of affiliation and points of view.

Already there’s a certain magic in it. Students notice, once they’ve chosen and declared their totems, that their own and others’ totems start showing up in unexpected places and ways: across our paths, on the Web, in our dreams. I hadn’t seen bunnies for years on campus until one of my Global students chose Bunny: within days you could not turn around without seeing bunnies. Another in the same class was Shark (partly on account of a diving encounter, face to face): now, class over, I am still sending him links to shark films that won’t stop turning up on my listservs. Yet another is Dragonfly, and this seems to be the summer of, yes, dragonflies.

We borrow from the Council of All Beings at a session where we appear as our totems, to deliver both warnings and gifts to each other and the world. This class met for our Council at dusk at the fire pit at the Lodge. It was our last meeting as a class, our “Final”. Thunderstorms were predicted –­ a major front was coming through – and the evening skies were grey, but we gathered outside anyway, started the fire, began to speak. Turtle offered his patience, deliberateness: precisely the ability to go slow. Shark, the reminder that the world’s most self-congratulatory animal (guess who) needs to seriously temper his arrogance in the waters. Sun offered eternal light. Between totems, the crickets and the frogs spoke up: we gave them their turns too, waiting until they paused for Owl (that was me, in my owl-head mask and academic gowns: actually my personal totem is Daddy Longlegs, but my – philosophy’s – disciplinary totem is the Owl) to sound the drum for the next speaker.

In another, more recent class doing the same thing, I had a co-teacher, Frances Bottenberg, better able to observe than me in my owl mask, who made a striking observation afterwards:

I actually had an eerie sense that [students’] faces and postures took on something of their animal (or plant or elemental) alter-egos when they began to speak about their connections to their [affinities]…. Bear had a growl in his voice I hadn’t noticed before… cat seemed calmly twitchy like cats are, ready to spring or lounge at the drop of a hat… The way Otter moved her hands as she talked reminded me of the way otters play with objects in the water, turning them over and over… Cloud was always glancing up, maybe taking all this lightly, as if from above… Shark’s teeth glinted, especially when she said she “always follows the blood”! Oh, and of course there was kindly but stern owl, who was so owl-awkward trying to look at his poem with one eye, and then the other… I could list more…

In the Global class, Owl ended with a toast to the students, looking back over their first year of college, best wishes for the summer. And as I raised my paper cup at the end, just after my last word, there was the first peal of thunder. A startling grace note, perfectly timed. Amen.

The students drank their sparkling cider. Then, shedding mask, I invited them to fill their cups in their imagination with whatever they wanted to leave behind from this first year of college, as well as whatever part of their totem they now wanted to give back to the world – and then to throw their “full” cups into the fire. As they did – many now in tears – the flames leapt up one last time. But by now the lightning was crackling too, mirroring the fire. We said rushed goodbyes. They sprinted, still only half returned to human, across the woods for their cars. Within half a minute, it was pouring – the start of a solid day of desperately needed hard rain. Vine Deloria writes somewhere about how Europeans consistently misunderstand Native peoples’ rain dances as means of manipulating or producing rain. Observers turn cynical when they realize that the shamans only begin rain dances when it appears that rain is in the offing anyway. But no, says Deloria: the function of the rain dance is not to produce rain but, as he puts it, to participate in the emerging event – which is why of course you only dance when the rain is practically upon you. So this was our rain dance: a taste of what “participating” in the larger-than-human world could feel like.

Only the barest taste, of course. I don’t know, in all honesty, what the students will carry forward from this – it is so foreign to the frames of reference that we normally take to define reality. Little in the rest of their education or experience will reinforce or deepen or repeat it. Totems do have a certain sticking power: people tend to remember their totem being, at least. (I certainly do: most of the students I remember from these classes always come with their totems in my mind, or come to mind now when I see chameleons or dragonflies or sharks…) More than a few students, over the years, have become actively involved with the plight of endangered totem animals or places. The magic, though, is harder to hang onto – and harder to recognize in the first place. We no longer have the categories; certainly (ironically and poignantly) they are seldom offered to young people, who might need them the most.

Another year, another class met at the Lodge, a former church camp about a mile from campus (we bike or carpool) with a lake, a few shelters, a building with fireplace for when it is too cold to meet outside, large grassy areas where we can sit in the sun on blankets in a circle. Most of all it offered us relative quiet – this was, alas, before the bypass went in – the chance to be outside without distraction, with alert senses for once, in good company: with the winds that are always active; the turkey vultures wafting about and checking us out, along with the occasional hawk and chittery kingfisher; sun and the falling leaves; and, at the start of that memorable Fall term, lots of rain and thunderstorms as a succession of hurricanes brushed by. We spent a lot of our first few weeks meeting in the shelters.

For that class we declared our totems around a smoky bonfire on a cool afternoon at the Lodge’s fire circle. Windy, too, with low clouds scudding by: the smoke blew everywhere, and there was a lot of it, so we all went to our next classes smelling like we’d been camping all week. That year it turned out I had Rain; Dolphin; Jaguar (a Mexican woman with Huichol roots, whose distant shamanic ancestors might well have been jaguars too); Salmon and Bear; and many others. Everyone declared themselves and was ritually welcomed into the circle.

We also had Great Blue Heron. As it happened, we had seen a Great Blue here at the lake below the Lodge, once, early in the term. But she’d never been back, though one end of the lake seems like good heron feeding-ground. Still, the heron’s appearance that one day was part of the reason D. chose it for her totem, I think. The other part was some kind of quiet grace, a body that could be ungainly but in fact had an unmatched elegance; and a quickness too. Long periods of utter stillness punctuated by the lighting strike of the beak. Imagine the inner life.

Then came the day that D. who was also Great Blue Heron was to present her term project on animal-animal, cross-species communication. We’d spoken, often, of human-animal communication, but she wanted to go several steps farther, to look at a bigger picture. Usually she’d been very quiet and did not say much, though she was a lovely and animated person when she got going. Now she had just begun to speak, already with that same animation and self-possession, the first time for a while we had heard her speak like this. Everyone sat up a bit straighter, smiled. But now just as quickly our eyes were drawn up and behind her. D. was sitting with her back to the lake: suddenly a shadow had floated by to her right and then spiraled down toward the water. Today of all days, this exact moment of all moments, Great Blue came back. She floated  down to the brilliantly sunlit end of the lake, in full view, the deeper part where feeding is (I’d think) not so good, landed in the most graceful way right in the brightest sun. There she stood for maybe half a minute, looking us over and showing herself just enough, and then just as elegantly took back off, skimmed the water down to the other end of the lake, landed and proceeded to hunt up the stream and out of sight.

We were stunned into silence. No missing the magic here, categories or no. I seriously wanted to end class right there, despite just having begun – what could you do after that? It was D.’s day, though, and she had a lot to say. So after a time we collected ourselves and began to speak again. Still, in a certain way, everything had already been said, or (more accurately) done. We came back to that Visit repeatedly in every reflection on the class for the rest of the term. No one who experienced that moment could have any doubts that animals “communicate,” indeed in a far deeper way than any one us, even D. herself, had yet named or even imagined. What emerged here was something primal, some kind of communicative flow vastly more powerful than language itself, something for which our only available word may once again be “magic” but which hints at far deeper receptivities and harmonies possible in the larger world. Some say that magic only happens to those who are prepared to receive it. Maybe so, in some ways. But the truth must also be more than this: for this way of putting it probably still gives ourselves too much credit. Here, anyway, it feels more as though we were given the merest hint of a pervasive unseen flow, a gift out of pure generosity, and still actually too much to assimilate. The world was just too full; it overflowed at that moment, and there we were.

I would only add: what if the world always is overflowing like this, only D. isn’t always there, so to speak; or maybe we or even she herself didn’t know yet that she was a Great Blue Heron; or maybe it was a bit nippy and we just decided to stay inside? How do we find the key again; how do we awaken again, and this time stay awake, to a world so eloquent that even the tiniest fragment of a line is almost unbearable?

Totems