Monday, January 09, 2023


 Popular education is about power. It is also about love. And both power and love are difficult to define. And so is popular education.

The popular educator Myles Horton said education should percolate, not drip-down. Perhaps popular education, in a nutshell, can be framed as a democratic process of questioning/challenging power.

Any attempt to define popular education is bound to leave something out.  Popular education has many aspects which are necessary to look at in order to settle on a definition. The six articles in this document are each attempts to define popular education. You will see a great deal of overlap and some differences though none of these definitions contradict each other.

Depending on how popular education is encountered and used it can be seen as a practice, a method, a methodology or set of techniques, a theory, a philosophy, a history, a social movement. None of these aspects is free of contradictions. Popular education seeks to unite theory with action and action with theory and is, therefore, always changing. Some people reduce popular education to a bag of tricks that any facilitator can use to make events more fun and participatory. But popular education was forged in revolutionary contexts in order to resist unjust power and to struggle collectively for a better world. Popular education is a demanding practice that takes time and commitment. As different social movements  have taken up popular education they have transformed it. This is especially notable with respect to feminist, trade union and anti-racist  movements. More recently, anti-globalization activism and queer activism has been influencing popular education.

Popular education is a theory/practice that is always growing and changing. As long as forces that benefit from the unjust concentration of power in our world continue to develop new ways to sustain this injustice anyone practicing popular education must rigorously reflect on their action and change and develop their practice accordingly.

The relationship of theory and action in popular education is a particular challenge in a world that privileges institutions like universities as the sites for official theory-making. The excerpts that follow all contribute to a theory of popular education.  Terry Eagleton, an English literary theorist, has written the following about theory and action that can be helpful in reflecting on the importance of theory to action.

Theory is just a practice forced into a new form of self-reflectiveness on account of certain grievous problems it has encountered. Like small lumps on the neck, it is a symptom that all is not well.

Whether and when this actually happens to a human practice is a highly variable matter. A long time ago, for example, people used simply to drop things from time to time. But nowadays we have physicists to inform us of the laws of gravity by which objects fall; philosophers to doubt whether there are really any discrete objects to be dropped at all; sociologists to explain how all this dropping is really the consequence of urban pressures; psychologists to suggest that we are really trying to drop our parents; poets to write about how all this dropping is symbolic of death; and critics to argue that it is a sign of the poet's castration anxiety. Now dropping can never be the same again. We can never return to the happy garden where we simply wandered around dropping things all day without a care in the world. What has happened, rather, is that the practice has been forced to take itself as its own object of enquiry. Theory is just human activity bending back upon itself, constrained into a new kind of self-reflexivity. And in absorbing this self-reflexivity, the activity itself will be transformed, as the production of literature is altered by the existence of literary criticism.

This, however, would seem to involve a curious paradox. For one of the effects of rendering our practices self-conscious in this way, of formalizing the tacit understandings by which they operate, may well be to disable them. Perhaps we only did what we did because we were not conscious of the problematical assumptions underlying out conduct. Indeed many theorists, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Sigmund Freud and Louis Althusser, have claimed that such amnesia or oblivion is an essential condition for any purposive action whatsoever. To objectify a procedure is to turn it into a potential object of contestation, which is why it is always safer for a ruling order to follow the English path and not do anything as vulgar and perilous as actually committing its constitution to paper. If you think too hard about how to kiss someone you are bound to make a mess of it. 

Theory, then, potentially destabilizes social life; but I have said already that it is also a conservative force, It is conservative in so far as it often seeks to supply us with new rationales for what we do, ordering and formalizing our meanings; but it cannot do this without making us freshly conscious of what we do, and this may always raise the possibility that we should do something else for a change. (The Significance of Theory, Terry Eagleton; Basil Blackwell, London, 1990; pp.26-27)


  1. What is Popular Education? From : Counting Our Victories by Denise Nadeau pp. 4-5
  2. What is Popular Education? From Popular Education for Peoples Empowerment -
  3. Popular Educators’ Declaration From Popular Education for Peoples Empowerment -
  4. Key Features of People’s Education: A Summary From: People’s Education: An examination of the concept, Glenda Jruss, UWC, p.19
  5. Definitions? From: Education Action 12, Action Aid, 2000.
  6. Popular Education: Concept and Implications From Convergence XIV:2 1981, International Council for Adult Education, pp. 70-72

1. What is Popular Education?

From : Counting Our Victories by Denise Nadeau pp. 4-5

Popular education is education of, for, and by the people. The term is a translation from Spanish, where “people” refers to the marginalized and exploited sectors – which in South and Central America is the majority of the population. Fundamental to popular education is a commitment to improving the conditions of the poor and oppressed.

Popular education is an approach that critically examines and learns from the lessons of past struggles, and from concrete everyday situations in the present. It is a deeply democratic process, equipping communities to themselves name and create the vision of the alternatives they are struggling for.

Popular education values and respects people as their own experts, and challenges the notion that the educator or organizer’s roles is as an expert who works “for” the people. It is based on the belief that people themselves have sufficient knowledge and that they can work out the solutions to their own problems.

Popular education is carried out within a political vision that sees women and men at  the community and grassroots level as the primary agents for social change. It equips people to define their own struggles and to make their voices heard. It involves a process whereby a group collectively analyses its problems and works collectively to solve them, including identifying the resources and skills they need. Popular education develops within this process the consciousness of and commitment to the interests of the most marginalized as part of the struggle.

Our commitment to popular education has been influenced by our experience working with women at a grassroots level in Canada, and by our involvement with popular educators from Central America and in the international women’s movement.

Popular education brings ongoing “consciousness-raising” to organizing. It shifts the emphasis from organizing for single events to organizing a group of isolated individuals into a collective of people committed to acting together for justice.  As the Filipino popular educator Ed de las Torre wanred, “if organizing includes  only mobilizing for rallies, demos and protests, then when the space for  organizing is again constricted, there’s not enough strength of conviction, clarity, and unity among the people. Because the issues never sank deeper, people join another power  (often right-wing forces) when the power of the protest movement wanes.”

The recent  “popularity” of popular education brings with it the risk that it will be reduced to group dynamics and participatory training techniques. This is a misuse and a misreading of what popular education is about. Popular education is part of the wider process of organizing for social change and movement building.

2. What is Popular Education?

From Popular Education for Peoples Empowerment -

“Popular education is a never-ending process. It is as open ended as the process of popular empowerment. There are no preset limits to people's consciousness, just as there are no fixed boundaries to the growth of people's power and dreams." 

--1986 PEPE Consultation

Popular Education is both old and new. It has always been there — guiding people, helping them give sense and meaning to their lives, aiding them in their struggles. And yet it's quite new: people are still beginning to explore its dimensions and possibilities. 

For PEPE, Pop-Ed means liberative education. It is relevant. It is needed. An education that exposes and then breaks the cultural and structural bonds hindering people's enlightenment and empowerment. Pop-Ed is education for social change. 

It challenges the traditional way of "teaching" people, an 'education' that makes them passive learners; one that silences them and makes them conform. It challenges attitudes and social structures that oppress people. 

Popular Education takes a political stand on the side of the marginalized people everywhere. It aims to empower the poor and those who had been kept out of decision-making structures. It does this by helping them become aware of their own oppression. Pop-Ed conscientizes people. It is about collective learning towards action for change. 

According to Mr. Edicio de la Torre, a well-known Filipino educator, there are at least three connotations of the word 'popular' in popular education. The most immediate is that it is accessible, not elitist and is closely connected to the idea of popularization, or propagating to a broader public what would otherwise be specialized or restricted knowledge. It has a connotation, both good and bad, of simplification. Another related idea is that pop-ed is not boring. 

The second connotation is standpoint: education for the people, in the service of the people. Liberating, empowering. This has tended to emphasize content: whatever is considered 'true' and 'correct.' 

The third connotation is of people creatively expressing themselves. Not necessarily 'correct' at every point of the process, but nevertheless authentic. Compared to the second connotation, the bias here would be for methods of participation and facilitation that are both evocative and provocative. People as subjects, speaking their word. They may have learned the words from many sources, but they have appropriated them, made them their own. 

We believe that Pop-Ed is about collective learning, that everyone has a stake in the generation and sharing of knowledge. Learners are not passive recipients of knowledge created elsewhere. Learning is generative and experiential. It evolves. Pop-ed blurs the distinction between teacher and student. It recognizes the enormous potential of group cognitive activity, enabling us to manipulate symbols and language, helping us play with the power of tales. Because everyone gives, everyone ultimately receives knowledge richer and more in-tune with reality. 

Pop-Ed helps us learn from our experiences. More, it helps us understand and make sense of our world, our life, our reality. Only when we truly understand our reality can we change it. 

Pop-Ed critiques and challenges unequal power relations. It takes the side of the weak. Disempowerment happens everywhere and on every scale: at the factory, the office, or the classroom, at the global level and even between lovers. Pop-Ed's task is to unmask unequal relations of power in order to change them. 

In a nutshell, Pop-Ed... 

  • critiques conventional modes of thinking; 
  • opens itself to critique; 
  • restores people's dignity and humanity; 
  • poses questions about our very existence; 
  • is a venue for "intersubjectivity"; 
  • recognizes the equal importance of the non-rational; 
  • engages the intellectual as well as the other spheres of being human; 
  • is creative and reflective; and, 
  • is averse to any totalizing framework. 

We can't delve deeply on all these points here, but suffice it to say that defining pop-ed is an ongoing process which, so far, has raised more questions than it can answer. In any case, pop-ed is a dynamic presence that is here to stay. 


3. Popular Educators’ Declaration 

GSP Ating Tahanan National Program and Training Center - Baguio City, Philippines

From Popular Education for Peoples Empowerment -

 We, popular educators, coming from different areas, backgrounds and fields of civil society, gathered this November 12, 1999 in Baguio City to participate in the 3rd Daupan Popular Educators Festival to celebrate and reflect on our work in popular education. After four days of intensive plenary discussions, workshop exercises and reflection sessions, we have reached a consensus on the following concerns that bear upon the future of popular education in the Philippines.

We unite on the following principles of POPULAR EDUCATION

  • Popular education encompasses all concerns relating to people empowerment – community organizing, cooperatives development, cultural work, environment, gender, grassroots leadership formation, governance, human rights, indigenous peoples, and other vital sectors – and recognizes the diversity of the frameworks used by various organizations in addressing these concerns. 
  • Popular education prioritizes the poor, marginalized, deprived and oppressed. 
  • It also cuts deep into our hearts; it is not only related to our work but affects our feelings, thoughts, actions and relations. 
  • Popular education is a continuous process of learning and unlearning. It is always self-critical. 
  • It recognizes, accepts and respects the distinctness, uniqueness and validity of each one’s context, and the diversity and plurality of their world views. It fosters active interchanges among the different rationalities. 
  • Popular education enables people to articulate their own stories, ask their own questions, seek their own answers and define their own directions. 
  • Popular education advocates participatory learning processes. It fosters a “sense of ownership” in people for their learning and recognizes them as partners in learning. 
  • As popular education is innovative, creative and optimizes resources present in the community, it is also sensitive to culture, gender, class, ethnic, ideological and other differences (including the physically-challenged) and recognizes these factors as built-in features of the learning environment. 
  • Popular education democratizes the creation of, access to, and the dissemination of information. 
  • Popular education strives to reach the greatest number of people and the different segments of society. 
  • Popular education motivates people to action towards social change and is transformative. 
  • Popular education locates itself within, not outside of, people’s operative frameworks. 

We view the following as essential qualities of a popular educator

  • The popular educator constantly develops his/her capacities and potentials and continuously engages in self-examination/reflection. He/She is both rigorous and creative and strives to balance both in his/her quest to develop his/her personal theory and practice in popular education. 
  • The popular educator espouses openness and respect for plurality. 
  • The popular educator regards passion and commitment as necessary elements of his/her work. 

The Context of Popular Education at the Turn of the Millennium

  • Popular education is situated within a world suffering from grave equity, sustainability and dehumanizing problems. 
  • The onset of the new millennium marks a time of rapid growth in information and communication technology, when society is shaped by the rapid generation and transmission of information. However, certain fields of knowledge remain controlled by a few. 
  • On the one hand, globalization imposes cultural homogenization, economic inequity and environmental destruction. On the other, it has potentials for promoting people-to-people solidarities and wider access to information. 
  • Prevailing policies on intellectual property rights (IPR) are often used to exploit indigenous resources and knowledge. 
  • Popular education coexists with and critically complements the various education efforts, and structures present in society, including formal ones. While formal education has its limitations, we need to appreciate and build on the in-roads that have been made within the formal educational system. 
  • The current appreciation of popular education is inclined towards simplification of concepts and training for education methods and skills development. 
  • There is a tendency for training programs to be funding-driven and limited by organizational structures and priorities. 
  • Popular education practice has achieved certain successes in various fields (i.e., environment, community development, etc.) and has evolved from initially being a tool for advancing political agenda into its present, multi-dimensional and integrated approach to holistic learning. 

We have identified the following challenges to popular educators and seek to respond to these

  • Popular educators should be able to develop and enhance participatory planning, monitoring and evaluation indicators to gauge their impact. 
  • Popular educators need to enrich the popular education discourse further, develop its practices and transform them into various media 
  • The popular educators’ community needs to ensure the continuity of the pop-education tradition through cultivating networks and partnerships and developing new educators. 
  • Popular educators need to be open to the positive influences of the fast-changing world while remaining firmly rooted in local realities. 
  • Popular educators need to advocate the development of the full human potential as the ultimate goal of popular education. 
  • Popular educators need to participate in the protection of indigenous knowledge and resources from exploitation and the effects of globalization. 
  • Popular educators need to pursue further theorizing on popular education to complement skills and method training. 
  • Popular educators need to firm up strategic directions for their work and not be constrained by funding and organizational demands.  


4. Key Features of People’s Education: A Summary

From: People’s Education: An examination of the concept, Glenda Jruss, Univ. of the Western Cape, p.19

To sum up the key features of People’s Education as formulated at the two conferences, by March 1986:

  1. Based on decades of education resistance, People’s Education is a rejection of Apartheid Education, which is education for domination.
  2. It has an underlying assumption that education and politics are linked and, consequently, that the struggle for an alternative education system can not be separated  from the struggle for a non-racial democratic South Africa.
  3. “People’s Education for People’s Power” is thus at the same time an educational strategy and a political strategy. Through People’s Education, people will be mobilized and organized towards the goal of a non-racial democratic South Africa; but at the same time through People’s Education, people are beginning to develop a future education system.
  4. Central to the success of People’s Education is organization of all sectors of the people, to take control of education and their lives. Students, teachers and parents need to build democratic organization in their own sectors, as well as establish strong working alliances and mutual understanding.
  5. People’s Education as an education system must be controlled by and advance the interest of the mass of the people.
  6. Arising out of the education crisis, People’s Education initially addressed itself to formal, school-based education. People’s Education is intended to educate and empower asll, not only school students.
  7. It must instil democratic values such as co-operative work and active participation – in opposition to current authoritarian and individualistic values dominant in schools.
  8. It must stimulate creativity and critical thinking to equip students for the future.
  9. Educational practices implementing the principles have to be developed particularly by teachers.
  10. People’s Education is in process – it can only be fully achieved when apartheid is abolished. In the meantime, it will be shaped and dveloped according to these guidelines. It is thus constantly changing and dynamic.

5. Definitions?

From: Education Action 12, Action Aid, 2000.

Reflect is an innovative approach to adult learning and social change which fuses the theories of Paulo Freire with the methodology of participatory rural appraisal. Reflect is one of many processes practiced around the world that are part of the worldwide movement of popular education. The following is a brainstormed list of definitions of Reflect from staff and participants in a Reflecft project in La Cuculmeca.

  • It is a blank page. It is not a law or a set of laws but something in the permanent process of construction
  • It is a pre-text. The techniques are pre-texts to promote communication and egagement
  • It is the creation of spaces so people can take responsibility
  • It is a means to put people in the centre rather than on the margins of their own development
  • It is a way of living not a set of methods
  • It is the internalisation of a participatory philosophy
  • It is about humanity and power
  • It is an internal process – internal to ourselves and internal to communities
  • It is about giving power for a change rather than taking it or using it
  • It is dangerous: it provokes crisis because it forces us all to change
  • It is a new way to pull together many elements of popular education
  • It is feeling power and enabling people to have the power to communicate
  • It is generating new hope, new horizontal revolutions
  • It is the use of techniques as an organic part of people’s own process
  • It is not a recipe, it is an open and evolving concept which needs to be interpreted
  • It is in permanent construction
  • It is a way of generating new energy to change ourselves and our organisations
  • It is about creating a new sense of self as an active agent of change
  • People who use Reflect and think they know it should be reminded that day by day you need to reflect and change your way of being


6. Popular Education: Concept and Implications

From Convergence XIV:2 1981, International Council for Adult Education, pp. 70-72

The term ‘popular’ suggests, at first, that this relatively new concept tries to differentiate itself from other ‘non-popular’ educational approaches… It is recognized that education in any society is organized mainly for transferring the prevailing norms and patterns of behaviour and, accordingly, for reproducing the existing order. But, at the same time, it is accepted that education by itself contributes to social transformation. Education is both a  process of renewal and a process  for maintaining the status quo; a process of homogenization of the people and also of differentiation, since it is directed toward the creation of specialists…

An Alternative Educational Approach

Popular education claims to be an alternative educational approach directed toward the promotion of social change,  rather than social stability, and toward the organization of certain educational activities. These are activities that contribute to liberation from the existing social order and to transformation; not merely social and economic reforms but structural changes that make it possible to overcome the prevailing unjust situation.

Advocate of popular education do not over-emphasize the role of education in this process. Since social transformation is a very complex phenomenon made up of social-economic and political variables, education must be integrated into a more general social effort. The specific task of education is related to the need for the transformation process to be assumed by the people as a ‘historic programme’ which offers the concrete opportunity fr them to become the subjects of their own lives. To achieve this, the people need to reach new and better levels of collective action, each time more organized, wider and more critical. One of the most relevant efforts is the education of popular groups that are potentially able to act as conscious agents of the process of social change.

Thus, popular education is a tool for developing critical social consciousness among the transformation agents in order to create specific dynamics in the action/reflection relationship. This process may be summarized, for clarification, as following this sequence:

  • Critique of the existing social reality;
  • Collective mobilization for social transformation;
  • Critical review of the action carried out;
  • Replanning of future action;
  • Re-evaluation of the previous diagnosis of social reality.

Characteristics Of Popular Education

Popular education is both a theory and a practice of social action that is geared toward development of the capacity for organization, communication and critical reflection on processes and social relationships by the most  depriced sectors of the population. It is a collective learning process and is implemented on the basis of a certain commitment to the popular sectors by those who take part. Consequently, popular education is also based on the participation of the popular sectors in the planning and implementation of new actions. These actions are conducted so that people can reach new levels of consciousness through the process of solving actual needs.

In Latin America, popular education has been generally carried out by non-government agencies. Its most relevant characteristics are:

  • The starting point is concrete. Popular education works within the actual world of the popular sectors. It starts from the popular culture. However, we know that popular culture has not developed in a social vacuum. It contains important elements of the dominant culture that have been transferred to the people through ‘non-popular’ education (among other means) in a way that exerts ideological control from within. To pay too much respect to the culture of the people may thus lead to the reinforcement of domination rather than to the promotion of liberation. The key to solving this apparent contradiction is to develop a critical ability by which people can detach the liberating forces of their culture from the oppressive ones.
  • Popular education is active. Like any popular activity, popular education is directed toward action, but not any action. It gives priority to the Greek concept of praxis; the type of action that makes possible the transformation of reality.
  • Popular education avoids manipulation. It attempts to be an educational system which is consistent in style with the new order that will arise in the future. This style is dialogical, horizontal and articipative in the sense that all those who intervene in the learning process are also engaged in the search for new knowledge.
  • Popular education is a collective effort. In most Third World countries, individualism is not only promoted but is even imposed. Solidarity and cooperation – basic pre-requisites for social organizations – are discouraged. Popular education, on the contrary, energetically stresses  the need for approaching the learning process, and subsequent action, in a way that promotes cooperation and common action.
  • Popular education is a flexible educational process of lifelong learning that continually adapts  to the changing historical and local conditions of the participants.

In Conclusion

Popular education is an adult education activity and, what is more, it is a specific response of adult education   to the endeavour of social transformation in Third World countries. Most of the methodologies of popular education are also principles of adult education. The intent of popular education is to detach itself from the educational efforts that are directed   to maintaining a social system that has been accused of being unjust and oppressive. Its appeal is for building an alternative education approach in Third World countries that is more consistent  with justice and freedom.

Saturday, January 01, 2022

Dreamers, Shapers, Singers, Makers

(I wrote this introduction for a series of a dozen sonnets I've collected into an art book that is one of the solstice books i've produced over the years. I post these sonnets on FaceBook and Instagram. The title of this post and of the solstice book is from Babylon 5, Season 2: The Coming of Shadows, Babylon 5 (1993-1998), created by J. Michael Straczynski)

Grace Paley, who I was lucky to see read her poetry a few times in the later years of her life, in her wonderful poem Responsibility, exhorts poets to step into the fires of social change. The poem is loaded with advice but one passage serves, for me, as a good explanation of why I have composed these dozen sonnets to activists:

It is the responsibility of the poet to stand on street corners
giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets
also leaflets they can hardly bear to look at
because of the screaming rhetoric

My other inspiration for these poems is Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, as timeless a work as there is. I noticed some years ago that this book had spawned its own subgenre of "letters to a young ____." Almost none of these works are true correspondence though they are epistolary writing (and i love the letter form, for sure). But Rilke's example is that of correspondence (written over several years) responding to a 19-year-old officer cadet who was asking for advice (and to which Rilke initially responded with "Nobody can advise you and help you..." He then goes on, nonetheless, to give advice). All to say that the letter-form for my project seemed beyond me. Which is when I thought of composing poems. Poems that would at least be worthy of my Aunt Margaret's attention.  For I make no claims that these sonnets are good poems though i've tried to craft them well. I can hear my late Aunt Margaret, high pitched voice and Scots accent, responding to several of my poems with, "Well, that's rubbish." But a couple of poems elicited, "That's quite good. I like that one." Higher praise doesn't exist. And in the hopes that at least a few of these poems might have earned my Aunt Margaret's praise had she lived to hear them, I offer this set of advice poems which are as much musing as exhortation.

I do ask myself why I feel compelled to offer advice. Well, even while the future remains unwritten, the path of the unfolding and quickening climate catastrophe that is upon us all seems ever more bleak. Though I remain stubbornly hopeful. I have spent a lifetime reading of possible futures - dystopian, utopian, apocalyptic, and everything in between -  in order to imagine what might lie ahead and what choices now should be made to find our way to a healthy and vibrant and just world. I have imagined myself every kind of hero, every kind of victim, and several kinds of villain. I have fantasized about being the last of humanity and the first of a new civilization that rises from the ashes. I have made lists of what one should have to hand should civilization collapse unexpectedly. And i've imagined where I would like to live in a post-apocalypse, assuming it was livable. But I have also wept for the imagined losses that are, in fact, unimaginable.

Thus have I spent my adult life to this point practicing popular education because I believe that the creativity, critical mindedness, kindness, humility, passion, love and courage that is at the heart of this practice (praxis, for you theory nerds) is what is most missing from movements for positive and necessarily radical social change. Popular education recognizes that all processes of change are, at their core, about learning. And that that learning has to be collective - that there is, in a sense, no such thing as an individual learner. As Paulo Freire writes, " one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught. People teach each other, mediated by the world." I have spent over 40 years forging a popular education praxis that is anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-colonial; that is defiant but also playful and committed to emancipation of the oppressed and the sovereignty of those who have suffered much. Popular education understands that everything in our world is interconnected and that while human communities and civilization are amazing things, they are not the centre of creation but rather only one kind of participant in the abundance of life on  planet earth. And unwittingly or not, we have taken more than our share and continue to wreak havoc on both human and non-human life. Now we are in a race with our selfish nature with only a matter of years ahead of us before our course is irreversible (optimistically speaking). Whether we overcome our narrow self-interest to learn and grow into a more mature and just understanding of life on this planet has, I believe, everything to do with how we practice learning.

I am, by nature, hopeful and thus always deeply committed to ensuring the most positive outcome from the many challenges we must confront in the coming decades. Nonetheless, my energy flags at times and I feel discouragement and even despair begin to well up. But I have always taken such moments as opportunities for learning and growth (and writing poems). I was surprised and heartened recently upon reading a 2019 op-ed piece by archaeologist Chris Begley who teaches wilderness survival, something that would seem, on its face, is increasingly important for any who plan to live into the late 21st century. But, perhaps counterintuitively, he writes:

"While the wilderness survival skills certainly can’t hurt, it will be empathy, generosity, and courage that we need to survive. Kindness and fairness will be more valuable than any survival skill. Then as now, social and leadership skills will be valued. We will have to work together. We will have to grow food, educate ourselves, and give people a reason to persevere. The needs will be enormous, and we cannot run away from that. Humans evolved attributes such as generosity, altruism, and cooperation because we need them to survive."

My hope is fuelled by the recently published The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Wengrow and the late David Graeber which tells a startlingly original account of human civilization that supports Begley's advice and also creates the basis for thinking much more radically and hopefully for our future. The history that most of us have been taught is one that, not surprisingly for some of us, has served certain narrow interests at the expense of those of the majority of humanity and the vast majority of non-human life on this planet. We need better history. And Graeber and Wengrow have given us a must-read text for the sake of our survival.

My hope is strengthened even more by the work of Octavia Butler whose Parable of the Sower I have recently re-read so that I may marvel once again at her imagination and prescience. It is a searing read, complicated and nuanced, but one that is filled with hope and courage. Each of her works points us towards the courage and imagination that we need now. And I have re-read Rilke. In fact I'm always re-reading everything I've read my whole life, re-reading being a joy second only to the joy of reading.  I'm currently reading to Taliesen the Pern novels of Anne McCaffrey. How I loved these as a teen. And what a joy to rediscover them with Taliesen. I know now that I did not appreciate, as a teen, the complexity of the social relationships McCaffrey describes in her novels. But something seeped through.  And that something is what I've also found in the words of a wilderness survival teacher/archaeologist, of writers like Octavia Butler, in the poetry and thought of Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldua, the philosophy of Maria Lugones,  the art of dian marino and Corita Kent, and so many others. 

Cooperate or die (and be forgotten). Perhaps it is as simple as that. But to cooperate we must participate with all life. And, as Alice Walker says, “We live in the best of all times ... [because] there’s so much to do!” Thus we must decolonize our politics, our economics, our social relationships. We must learn to use less stuff. We must work to restore what we have so casually destroyed. We must learn better to be humble and loving. For the world will shrug us off and carry on as it can - if wounded and ailing. But it will recover. Human civilization may not. 

So, here are a few poems with a few things that i've learned and which I hope contain a few things with which you might connect.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

A Poem-a-Day

(I wrote this introduction for a series of 'zines of short poems selected from my poem-a-day writing practice. I post these poems on FaceBook and Instagram)

I love to write. Just write. I do enjoy getting published as well. But that's different from writing. I have many writing practices one of which is writing a poem a day. I have practiced this on and off  going back 30 or more years. While i try and write good poems I have no illusion that I am producing great poetry. If the poems please me then I am content. Which, perhaps, makes me entirely too complacent, if not lazy. But we'll see.

A few years ago I decided to try a poem-a-day with each day (save Saturday) devoted to a different short form. Thus Sunday = haiku; Monday=gathas; Tuesday=senryu; Wednesday=rubaiyat (rhyming quatrains); Thursday=tankas; Friday=cherita.

I have found over the years that, while poetry in general is, for me, a contemplative activity, the various short forms of which I am fond are excellent for practicing mindfulness. There is so much to notice in the world - beauty and suffering  - all of it. As Rilke writes in his Book of Hours: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

Thus am I sharing some of the product of my daily poetry practice. I am, at least for now, excluding my Rubaiyat cause I suck at rhyming and, more significantly, it is a form for which I still lack adequate understanding. 


Perhaps the best known short form poem in the world, haiku is generally described as three lines of five, then seven, then five syllables. This approximates in English the Japanese practice of seventeen on  which are similar to English syllables. Many modern haiku don’t conform to seventeen syllables but rather seek to express an observation of nature in as few words as possible. I tend to stick to the 5/7/5 but occasionally try something different. Traditional haiku include a kigo or seasonal word. I also challenge myself to avoid using metaphor as this forces me to pay closer (deeper?) attention to what I am observing. But metaphor is fun so it happens often enough despite my attempts to avoid it. A haiku is a nature poem but the 5/7/5 structure lends itself to composing poems about just anything. There is another form, senryu, which uses the haiku form but which is focussed on something else. See my description which follows. I like to stick to haiku being about nature.

Bees collect pollen
in savoury sun-warmed air
Scent of russian sage


When i search for a library book and find it has 95 holds
I vow with all beings
to celebrate the printed word
shared and shared again

I learned about Gathas from Zen Buddhist Robert Aitken’s book The Dragon Who Never Sleeps (Parallax Press, 1992) which I picked up at the Green Gulch Zen Center when visiting there in 1994. Gathas are simple four line poems that are vows for daily living.  Aitken describes The Dhammapada (a collection of Buddha's teachings that I read 40 years ago) as being composed of gathas, but I've always found these rather stuffy. Aitken also points to the Avatamsaka Sutra (my favourite Buddhist teaching) chapter Purifying Practice which is made up of 139 gatha vows. But they've always struck me as a tad lofty and endlessly serious. Even Thich Nhat Hanh's collections of gathas (Present Moment, Wonderful Moment), though lovely, lack humour.  Aitken’s gathas are a wonderful combination of quotidian focus, wry humour, poignant observation. And I quite like the beat of the second line (I vow with all beings) which Aitken adopted from the Purifying Practice chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra.


School bag dropped quickly
he runs to the baseball field
leaping into play

Senryu use the form of the haiku but, while haiku focus on nature, senryu focus on culture. They tend to the satirical and focus on daily  social, political, and economic life.  I like how playful senryu can be. English author R.H. Blyth in his lovely book Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verse (The Hokuseido Press, 1949) describes senryu as being satirical without being cruel. In the preface to that book, Blyth notes that in one of his Japanese books about senryu someone has pencilled the comment: "Senryu are not to be read twice, however good they may be." But, while Blyth  then defends senryu as deserving more attention than this comment suggests, it did make me immediately think of New Yorker Magazine cartoons and Gary Larson's The Far Side. It had never occurred to me to think of these cartoons (and many others besides) as a form of poetry. But they are certainly senryu-like and I am rethinking my take on these.


Flowers hug themselves
Patient for the light and warmth
Of bright vernal days
Each year the earth remembers
Unforgetting seeds and bulbs

I know less about the history of tanka but learned it is a five line poem of 31 syllables (or on as with haiku). There are two sections to a tanka, the upper phrase of three lines (which like haiku use the 5 /7 / 5 syllable pattern), and a lower phrase of two lines of 7 syllables each. Originating in eighth to tenth Century Japan, tanka (then known as waka) were  used for intimate communication between lovers or people who were courting.  Thus the tanka was a kind of love poem (perhaps similar to the Elizabethan sonnet). I thought that this form might be interesting to use as a means of writing love poems to the earth.


Pomegranate seeds swallowed

and the gift of seasons
was born

Each folding
unfolding into each
other endlessly

The cherita is one of the newest forms of poetry I have come across. And I loved it instantly. It is a six line poem in three stanzas, the first of which is one line, the second, two lines, and the third, three lines. It's a form that was created on June 22, 1997 by UK poet and artist ai li. She named this form in memory of her grandparents who were wonderful storytellers. Cherita is the Malay word for “story” or “tale”.” And a cherita tells a story. It very quickly became my favourite short poetry form. I love its focus on narrative and I realized that unlike haiku and senryu which tend to 'take a snapshot,' the cherita invites paying attention to the sequence of action. I've found it's a wonderful form for synthesizing short (very, very short) versions of many tales I love to tell. When limited to only six lines one has to make some pretty hard decisions about what to leave in and leave out.

Monday, May 10, 2021


One day Otter, in tears, came to King Solomon: "My King, I have come for justice. This morning I asked Weasel to take care of my children while I went to the water to find food. When I returned, Weasel had killed my children." Solomon summoned Weasel and asked if what Otter had said was true." Weasel hung her head and said, "Yes, it is true. But I am not to blame for I was only responding to Woodpecker's striking of the War Drum and trampled Otter's children in my haste." Solomon summoned Woodpecker and asked if what Weasel had said was true. "Indeed, it is true that I signalled the call to war. But I did this as was expected of me when I witnessed Scorpion sharpening his dagger." Solomon summoned Scorpion and asked if what Woodpecker had said was true. "I admit that it is so," said Scorpion. "But I did this only upon seeing Tortoise don his armour."  Tortoise, when summoned said, "yes, but I acted only when I saw Crab draw his swords." Crab, in turn, said, "I acted only upon seeing Lobster draw his javelin." Lobster then said, "what choice had I when I saw Otter coming to eat my children?" Solomon turned to Otter and said, "Neither Weasel nor any others are guilty. You, Otter, are responsible for your children's death. Who sows death, reaps death."

Monday, March 01, 2021

A Sufi, a Catholic, a Hindu, and a Jew walk into a bar….

(with thanks to Bob Kanegis for the title to this blog post. Check out his blog here:

Hazrat Inayat Khan tells a story of Moses who invited the Lord God of Israel to break bread with him. Moses’ God answered that he would indeed come. Moses prepared a great feast and, while waiting for his guest, a poor man walked by and begged for food saying, “I have not eaten in three days. Please might I have a slice of bread.” Moses looked past the beggar to see if his God was coming and said, “If you can wait but a little while, I am expecting a guest and when he has come and gone I will give you all that is left over which will be far more than a mere slice of bread.” The poor man left, time passed, God did not arrive. The next day, bitterly disappointed, Moses went to Sinai to pray. “My Lord, how have I sinned that you would promise to visit and yet not come?” God responded, “Moses, We came but you did not recognize Us. For who do you think was the beggar at your door?”

I've come across this type of tale many times and feel it most fitting in this pandemic era of isolation from each other and all that we bear to maintain our wellbeing. This story is extremely similar to a lovely tale i think i recall from Nathan Ausubel's Treasury of Jewish Folklore in which a Talmudic student, determined to stay focused on his studies, shoos away a beggar only to learn that it was none other than Elijah. And the entire tradition of Elijah stories is one that exists as reminder of the hidden presence of the divine. Not to mention the stories of the lamedvovniks, the hidden saints, who commit acts of anonymous generosity and thus sustain all of creation.

One of the joys of storytelling is the discovery of similarities across cultures and time of wisdom and ethics and humour. But, as I learned from scholar Wendy Doniger, as interesting as are the similarities, it's really the differences that are the most interesting. Which, in this time of exrtremist right-wing white supremacist populism, is something we need to remember more than ever.

When I re-read Hazrat Inayat Khan's story I was reminded again of a catholic joke I grew up with as well as a Bengali tale I found in the wonderful collection Folktales of India by A.K. Ramanujan (Pantheon, 1991):

Once there was a flood in which a faithful man was trapped in his house. He went to the second storey where he looked out the window and saw a canoe approach. “Get in, get in,” the canoeists said. “We’ll save you.” But the man waved them away, saying, “I put my faith in the Lord. He will not let me come to harm.” The canoe paddled away. The floodwaters rose and the man had to flee to the third floor. He looked out the window and saw a motorboat approach. “We’ve come to rescue you,” the boaters said. But the man waved them away, saying, “I put my faith in the Lord. He will not let me come to harm.” The boaters left and the floodwaters rose faster. The man climbed onto the roof of his house when along came a helicopter that lowered a ladder. But the man waved them away yelling, “My faith is in the Lord. He will not let me come to harm.” The waters rose and the man drowned. In heaven he demanded an audience with the Lord. Standing before the Lord he asked, “Why did you let me die? My faith was strong and yet you let me die.”

“I don’t understand it,” said the Lord. “I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

Once there was a guru giving a lecture to his disciples about God. His teaching on this day was about the presence of the divine in everything. “God is in the trees, the stones, the river, the animals and in you,” he said. One disciple was very moved by this lecture and was pondering the teaching as he walked towards a nearby village. On the edge of the village he looked up to see a commotion down the street. Soon he saw that it was an elephant that had gotten out of control and was smashing its way down the street. The driver was madly flailing as he struggled to keep his balance on the elephant’s back. The disciple could see the damage the elephant was causing, people almost trampled, carts overturned, shop fronts reduced to rubble. But the disciple thought of the new teaching he had just received. And he considered that if God was in everything then God must be in that elephant as well as within himself. He resolved to stand in the elephant’s way and practice his new learning believing that his awareness of the presence of God would protect him and the elephant. He stood his ground as the elephant galloped towards him. The elephant was suddenly right in front of the disciple. The elephant wrapped his trunk around the disciple, picked him up and smashed him against one wall and then another. It dragged him in the street and left him bloodied and bruised in the dust. A short while later the guru came by and was startled to see his disciple injured in the street. “What has happened?” he asked. The disciple explained: “Master, I was reflecting on your teaching this morning when I saw the mad elephant. I resolved to deepen my belief in the presence of God in everything, including in the elephant. I believed that God would protect me.” “I see,” said the guru. “It is indeed true that God was in the elephant. But God was also in the driver of the elephant who was yelling at you to get out of the way.”

Image Source: Fusine in Valromana, Italy - Photo by Federico Bottos on Unsplash

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Mirror

Once upon a time a young farmer was going to travel to the big city to buy some supplies. His father reminded him of the supplies they needed. His mother told him not to forget to be careful and watch out for thieves and avoid the taverns. His wife asked him to buy her a comb but, knowing her husband had to remember many things, pointed to the crescent moon and told him that looking at the moon in the sky would remind him of the comb she wanted. The farmer spent several days in the city to gather the supplies he needed and, finally ready to return home, found that he forgotten what his wife had asked for. Then he remembered to look at the moon which, by this time, was full and round, and he remembered that his wife had asked for something the shape of the moon. Entering the nearest shop he asked the shopkeeper for something round like the moon. The shopkeeper offered the farmer a mirror saying, “just as you requested, as round as the moon.” The farmer, never having seen a mirror, was very impressed and was certain that it would please his wife. When he presented his wife with the mirror she was disappointed that it was not the comb she had asked for. But, worse than that, when she looked into the mirror, she saw the face of a pretty young woman. She was shocked and outraged that her husband had returned from the city with another woman and she ran to her mother-in-law saying, your son has brought home a young woman from the city!” The mother-in-law looked into the mirror and said, “you are mistaken, it is not a young woman he has brought back but an old woman. What is he thinking bringing that old crone here?” The wife said, “she is no crone. She’s young and pretty.” The mother-in-law protested and put the mirror on the table while she and her daughter-in-law argued. The farmer’s son came into the kitchen and grabbed a rice cake to snack on and, seeing the mirror on the table, saw a young boy eating the very same rice cake. He shouted at the boy, “hey, don’t eat my rice cake! Give it back.” But the boy looked angry, kept the rice cake and seemed to be yelling back at the boy. The boy’s grandfather came into the room to see why his grandson was upset. His grandson cried, “grandfather, there’s a boy there who is stealing my rice cake.” The grandfather picked up the mirror and, seeing an old man staring back, was shocked to see that it was his own father returned from the grave.” He put the mirror down and bowed to the spirit of his father and asked forgiveness for his rudeness. The farmer entered the house to find his entire family crying and upset. “What has happened here?” he shouted. Everyone spoke at once. “Why have you brought home a young woman?” his mother shouted, “how dare you waste your money on that old hag!” His father looked stricken as he bowed low on the floor and his son was crying with a rice cake in his hand. His wife grabbed his hand and, holding the mirror in her other hand, dragged him to the local magistrate with the entire family following. The wife placed the mirror down in front of the magistrate and began to explain what had happened. The magsitrate picked up the mirror and was shocked to see a new government official in the robes of office and said, “finally, my replacement has shown up and I can leave this town.” He called to his servant to begin packing. Everyone reached for the mirror at once and it was knocked off the magistrate’s desk and smashed into a thousand pieces. Everyone was puzzled as to what had become of the person they had seen. “Good riddance,” said the wife.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Happy Man's Shirt

Once there was a king who fell ill with an ailment that confounded his doctors. Wise men and women, healers of all kinds were consulted and none could help. Finally, one of the king’s advisors suggested sending for the old woman who lived in the forest and who many believed to be a witch. Still, many people sought her out for her teas and herbs when in need. The old woman was brought before the king and after speaking with him and examining him as best she could, said that the only thing that would cure him would be to wear the shirt of a truly happy man. The king sent for a priest and asked him if he was truly happy. “Why, yes, I am,” said the priest. “Very well,” said the king. What if I were to make you my bishop?” “That would make me very happy,” said the priest. And the king sent the priest away, for the priest could not have been truly happy if still he desired to be something more. The king sent his advisers to visit the king of a neighbouring kingdom who, he had heard, was a happy king, indeed. But the advisers learned that though the neighbouring king was prosperous, his kingdom peaceful, and his family abundant, well-loved and healthy, the king was not particularly happy. This king admitted that, despite all, he was not happy for he couldn’t sleep at night for fear of losing all that he had. The advisers returned home in failure. Finally the king, with his men, went out riding one day through the countryside. Stopping by a pond to refresh himself and the horses, the king heard singing coming from the far side of the pond. He left his men and the horses and followed the sound of the singing. It was the most beautiful singing he had ever heard and the joy in the voice and music made the king think that here must be a truly happy man. The king found the singer, clad in a green jacket, gathering kindling in the woods. He approached the man and asked if he would like to return to the castle and live there in luxury as one of the king’s advisers. “I would not change places with the Pope, your majesty. I am happy in my life right here,” said the man. The king was overjoyed and asked if he could have the man’s shirt. The man smiled, and unbuttoned his jacket. The king saw that the happy man wore no shirt.