Connecting: The Grand Narrative

Simon Ensor has been laying down some mean tracks on his blog, touches of sense… especially this one, “Zootopia” where he asks the shimmering question, “Whatever happened to grand narrative?”

I started out by responding  via the Diigo Group Annotations for #CCourses that we have set up (totally open to join here), but as happens so often for me the annotations got longer and longer until they grew into a quasi/semi/pseudo/crypto post.  Hence the spillover here. Besides, how was I going to get my snake pix in here otherwise.  Yes, this blog now involves snakes so that makes this officially akin to the snakes on a plane–without the cussin’.

After beginning his grand narrative, Simon begins to draw the truth from the parable of the zoo.  He writes, “I would like to imagine that in the future our children will look at the enclosures in which past generations were kept as absurd anachronism.”  I recall the first time I used blogs in the secondary high school in 2002 it felt like I was not only opening up the cages, but also knocking holes in the walls so that no one could ever use them as cages again.  At least for the students who I was working with, I think this was true. Once they tasted that freedom there was no going back.

Then he gets to the big question: whatever happened to grand narrative?

Well…maybe it’s all grand narrative all the way down.  For example,  I had a grand day outside.  Frost was expected so we had to dig our peanuts and check out the sweet potatoes to see if they were ready to dig (tradition here is to dig them after a frost).

CC BY Terry Elliott

I think we are going to get about a five to one return on the peanuts (yield per pound planted) and God knows on the sweet taters.  That is a grand narrative isn’t it?  One of the grandest narratives.  Agriculture.  (And it is one that is not without its…dark side.)

I was introduced to a grander narrative only a short while after we had battened down the garden to save the tomatoes and peppers and flowers from frost.  My wife discovered a corn snake trapped in bird netting.

Copyright Elaine Digges, Permission to use

Corn snakes are the glory of the constrictors round these parts.  Bright orange with diamonds patterns and black and white bellies.  Astonishing.  If you catch sight of of one in the wild you cannot believe that such a creature could hide from anything.  Too bright.  Too shiny.  Yet…I have seen them slither away and disappear like the Cheshire Cat.  We cut the netting away from her.  Took her away from where the chickens might do her harm (chickens are notorious snake enemies) and released her.

Copyright Elaine Digges, Permission to use

She immediately serpentined about in a threatening “s” to let us know that she was not to be anthropomorphized. Three feet of grand narrative, millions of years old, with a legacy that lives on in one of the parts of our triune brain.  I was unconsciously sweating the whole time I was cutting her away from the netting with scissors. I could not help it.

DSC_0123-001cornsnake (1)
Copyright Elaine Digges, Permission to use

That narrative is a potent legacy, not to be thrown off by a rational self that told me over and over that there was no danger.  That is a grand narrative that leads me to a question– is anyone an island entire unto herself?  Should we not consider the unveiling of connection to be the great new story that Thomas Berry speaks of in his book , The Dream of the Earth ? Is the corn snake another revealed link just like reading and annotating Simon’s post and all of it part of a larger scheme?

Simon notes how appalled he felt as he observes how his young friends “appeared to have their lives mapped out” much like the animals of Zootopia. I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with those maps into the future.  The danger is in thinking that any cartographer could draw one for us.  We are not alone in the struggle to map out our own territory, but perhaps Simon is suggesting that we need to be more like Daniel Boone when it comes to blazing our own trail.  Any other map just might be the wrong one pulled from someone else’s cosmic junk drawer, the Procrustean one that will make us fit, a  soul’s death by a thousand cuts

Or as Simon put it fast forwarding decades into the future,  his ‘mapped out’ friends had become too dependent on their own comfort, their own faith in the map. I was reminded of  a paradoxical phrase “risks may be our safeties in disguise” that I thought might have come from a John Berryman sonnet.  Uncertain of the origin,  the phrase sent me on a Google search. Instead, I was taken to a post I had written in Blogger in 2001.  In it I am looking for a map that was calling out to be blazed:

My eyes are shot. I have been sketching approaches to on-line classes all day when I realized that what I want is a website that will supplement what I am doing in the classroom. I want projects, resources, and information that my students can use outside of class to make their learning richer. I want interaction. But I also want something a home-bound student or a home-schooled student could pick up and go with. All the web development sites and resources tell me that is the wrong way to go about building a web site. But a big, sprawling site feels right to me. I am thinking about an old bookstore I used to haunt in downtown Louisville, Zimmermans. His books were sometimes stacked neatly, sometimes in boxes, sometimes in great tall stacks with their spines turned so that you had to unstack them. That’s how I feel about this prefab notion of building a learning environment. I would prefer to grow a learning tree. Some parts die, some parts grow. Sometimes a storm blows the whole freaking mama to the ground.

That brings me to change. Part of me is appalled by the philosophy of constant change. Why the hell should I, for example, concern myself with an article about e-books. It’s a crappy technology that is nearly stillborn. Yet… I know some version of electronic portability will be born and grow. And so it means climbing the learning curve every day with no guarantee that the hard-won knowledge won’t be lost like some Sysyphean stone that crushes the life out of you. That is real teaching… the opportunity to constantly regale your friends with the depth and breadth of your foolishness. Teachers must be early adopters, they must struggle with new ways of learning no matter how feeble because they might just grow from a palsied childhood to greatness. It takes real courage to say to yourself that nothing you do will ever be good enough. But I hate change… I think John Berryman once said in a sonnet that risks may be our safeties in disguise. I put my hope in that paradox. I put my heart in the safety of change.

So… Simon, is this the grand narrative? Do we un-write the old story and spin a new one from partly old thread and partly new?  I think maybe E.M.Forster’s admonition in Howard’s End might hint at the new fabric we need,

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
Only connect…


Breadcrumbs for a Collaborative Poem->Daily Connected Blog->Twitter->TitanPad->Timeline->SnagIt->YouTube->VideoGif->and Parts Unknown.

Kevin suggested in a tweet that we create a collaborative poem.

He originally posted this from the daily connected blog.




Thence to TitanPad







Timeline on TitanPad recorded on SnagIt and uploaded to YouTube and downloaded by Firefox extension “Download Flash and Video”


And lastly into a gif with VideoGif for use in future Zeegas/multimodal works.




Beyond Me, Beyond Thee: Have a Little Faith in the Articulation of the Dawn

Susan Watson’s dark-backgrounded blog has more light in it than a magnesium road flare. Her latest incendiary has ignited some tinder in my memory, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Especially Chapter Seven–“The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”. That is why I have music at the beginning and end of this post. Music succeeds as a way beyond words and toward connecting better than almost anything else I know. So John Hiatt (at the beginning) and Dr. John (at the end)are my pipers as I write into the dawn.


The connection I made with Susan’s post, “Needle in a Haystack”, was through the mediation of my best friend in annotation, Diigo. I have used Diigo since 2006, but rarely have I found a convivial crowd to play with the group annotation function. And by rare I mean never. There is just enough ‘friction’ in using it for folks to say, “It’s fine as a social bookmarker, but I just don’t know about annotating as a group. Too damned messy.” Aye, I admit, ’tis messy. And sometimes folks erase your good works. And it can be a bit ‘hincty’ to use (in the idiom of my Kentucky comperes), yet it remains the best of what for most part is a bad lot–at least in a convivial sense. I started reading Susan’s post with an eye toward a group annotation much like we recently did with Mimi Ito’s sweetly vulnerable post about the terror of real connection on the net. And then it took a turn. Or rather my memory took a turn with her text. All of the sudden I was with Ratty and Mole floating down the river in a johnboat looking for old Otter’s doted upon youngest child, Portly.



Susan mentions inspiration and its word origins especially their connection to the gods. (My annotations are in italics.)

I am thinking of Pan here.  You know…the panpipes.  i have such wonderful associations with this word because of The Wind in the Willows. The very title of Grahame’s book is a reference to Pan and the gods of otters and water rats and moles and badgers and toads. I read this book over and over to my children growing up.  I want Chapter Seven to be read aloud to me as I die. It is titled “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” –Pan, the source of all inspiration, speaking to use through the wind in the willows at the gates of dawn.

I am inspired here to suggest that your blog like every loved thing or space has a genius loci, a Pan of its own living within like the little island in the middle of the weir in The Wind in the Willows.  Your work is to give it room to breathe out that inspiration, to be another’s wind in the willows.  There really are undiscovered connections everywhere.  Holy digital spaces that we believe in because others do and because we do.  Inspiring, breathing in, like the zephyr at dawn. Sweet and wild and impossible to word.

She goes on the hint rather loudly “the fact that something bigger than “us” is at play here.”

Yes, in teaching I yearn for these moments where the artifice fades away, the planning drops off, the dross of the past is slagged off and a new presence is born.  We become the pipers at the gates of dawn if only for a few moments and the seeming chaos of improvisation, of taking our lead from the pipedreams in the ayre, becomes impossibly logical, a transcendent logic.  And no wonder we are called ‘touched’ because we damned well are.  And the world in these times makes abject sense, abject in the sense that wonder and awe always cast off sense.

She remarks on Simon Ensor’s utterly remarkable (and readable, so hie you to them) posts on the hidden and accessible better angels of our nature here and here and here. And in a throw away phrase at the end she asserts that after you read Simon you will “get the idea”–a kind of “the rest of the exercise is left to the student” moment for me.

We get the idea because it is a river that passes through this familiar yet undiscovered country.  We all come to it through teaching for whatever reason. Teaching flips the switch that allows us to see the light that “grows and grows” in Wind in the Willows.

“Mimi’s post was added to the Diigo group so we could all jump in and annotate.” In the light of dawn and with my friends Ratty and Mole and Susan and Simon I respond:

Mimi’s post is just a little rowboat, a place to put the hamper as we search for Old Otter beloved youngest child along the river banks.  (Please read Chapter Seven of Wind in the Willows here. ).  Not to put too hyperbolic a point on it–we really are  rescuing children from the leg traps and snares of the world when instead we should be taking them to meet the pipers at the gates of dawn.

Mimi’s post resonated with Susan -made her laugh. I resonate, too.

If you love words, you’ll love ‘resonate’–I think it is directly analogous to the word recursion. Where recursion is tied to vision, resonation is tied to the ear. It is not an old word at all according to the OED.  it is a science word. Many disciplines use it. To re-sound, to be a re-sounding board, to echo back and forth.  It is like the empathy of mirror neurons.  It is memory and the experience of shared discipline and questions and ranging out into the world.  We are all looking for someone’s lost child.  We have all found Pan at the Gates of Dawn.  Hence, the resonating chord stretched between us and only felt as it vibrates, akin.

She sluices down the word ‘amalgamation’ to try to explain the apparent ubiquity, even multiplicity of her connected friends.  (Personally, I am thinking Robert Johnson at a crossroads making a pact with Old Scratch, but that is just idle and envious speculation on my part.)

I think that we skirt around the issue of how we go beyond an “amalgamation” when we lower our gates and release the bloody-minded wards of routine. We really are Kevin and Mimi and Maha and Alan (well, maybe not Alan 😉 ).  I think they are our fractal selves. Is that nuts? Is that perhaps lowering the prison walls a bit too much?  None of us is free.  We are all tied to each other.  If one goes down, the rest of us will be pulled down the mountain. Do I really believe that as more than a damned abstraction?  Sometimes.  At the best of times.  All the time? I just gotta keep working that garden.

Susan’s  is a post no one can say they didn’t read because it was too long.  Nor is Diigo so hard that you cannot get back your investment of  time and energy in no time flat. It is all about play.  My post is written in play at the dawn of a new Sunday.  We are all afloat in the same boat and on the same river and at play.    I feel alive to Kenneth Graham’s words in the mouth of the oh so wise Water Rat who is hearing Pan’s tune in the willows.

“‘Now it passes on and I begin to lose it,’ he said presently. ‘O Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.’

For whom does the piper pipe? He pipes for thee. Let Dr. John pipe us into that new dawn.