Writing a Metacognition
Know Thyself… Explore, Assess, Reflect & Rethink
If we don’t learn from what we do, we learn little of real value. If we don’t make the time to explore, reflect and rethink our ways of doing things we will never grow, evolve and reach our greatest potential or tap into the possibilities in our lives. Writing metacognition’s is our way to explore our experiences as students and teachers, and then to honestly assess our strengths and weaknesses, to willfully and wisely reflect on what we did—and did not—do, and to rethink how to move forward in a positive and more enlightened way towards a better and more applicable and capable future.
There are many sides to every experience, so when I ask you to “explore” an experience and write a metacognition, I am not looking for a simple summary of what you did. I expect you to write like you are walking the rocky and jumbled coastline of what you just went through. Recount and relive your experience as a stream of deliberate, dreamlike consciousness. This recounting and reliving can be as scrambled and unkempt as your emotions and memories; there is no “Fitz Rubric” to follow; there are no specific“details” to the assignment—there is only you and your own heart that you can follow with your own iconoclastic bent, will and resolve. You do not have to worry about being understood by your reader. You are only trying to understand and know yourself.
When you assess, there is no way around the need for a bit of cold and reptilian critique. Looking with clear eyes upon yourself is a hell of a hard task, but it is part and parcel of a thinking person’s package. Sure enough, the assignment might be so flawed as to be undoable, but that is, I hope, fairly rare. More likely the great flaw (or the great promise) starts with you, your attitude, and your way of tackling the work. And it ends with you. Pull out a scale and a measuring tape and tally what you produced; weigh it against the scale of time you stole from your life to complete the work, and ask yourself: do you feel like saying, “Check it out,” or do you feel like sighing, “Chuck it out.” To assess is to figure that out.
Once “that” is figured out, your head should kick into full reflection mode. A reflection scours the deeper trenches for whatever insights can be culled from the briny mud of experience. Pull these thoughts and splay them on the deck as they come, for they are all gifts from the sea of the mind, and their true value can be discerned later and kept or cast as wanted or needed. There is no such thing as unwanted catch in a reflection.
If you are unwilling to rethink your actions you are, to use an old adage, condemned to repeat that action. By rethinking approaches you can retool the machine of your being, and in that sense you are continually reborn as a better you. You make sense of yourself and are now clad in a stronger armor with a shield, pike and sword better suited to turn the tide and win the day in any future battle.
Sometimes a metacognition ends up as a disjointed ramble of thoughts and feels (and maybe is) a jumbled expurgation of contradicting thoughts. But that is fine. It is what it is…. Other times, it may flow together so cleanly and fluidly that it comes out as a pure and unified essay that reeks of the nuanced wisdom and strong wine of distilled thought, which is just as fine, yet infinitely more rewarding, more refreshing, and more fit to be shared—if that is the bent of your indefatigable genius.
Do this. Give a damn and figure yourself out.
Be that genius…
I am constantly asking my students (and myself) to reflect on the literature they, and I, read. As I have grown older—and not necessarily wiser—I find myself only reading literature that I am sure will prod me out of my intellectual and emotional torpor, like a lizard basking in the newfound warmth of spring. Right now it happens to be The Brothers Karamazov, a book I first read as an eighteen-year-old literary newbie. It might have been the first time I didn’t turn away from a book because of the daunting length of the text and the panoramic sweep of life it covers. It is now a completely new experience, though it still resonates with the young and restless soul that even now permeates the fibers and sinews of my aging and ageless self. That book made me think.—and forced me to think beyond and into my myopic experience of life thus far.
In short, I could not read without responding. The reflections of my mind needed an outlet, so I found myself arguing and assenting in long rambles in notebook journals or with anyone who would listen to me, argue with me and/or explore with me. In that way the novel became—and still is— a part of me. The more I wrote about what I read the more I knew the book. By knowing what I knew (and did not know). I realized that only by exploring through reflection could I answer through an essay.
Most of us have to write essays about subjects we know precious little about; hence, our essays have the taint of soured milk—still milk, but hardly worth drinking…
Our teachers mark us down for inserting the “I” voice into our writing as if “we” don’t really exist—as if there must always be proof beyond ourselves that “knows” more than we know—as if that is something we don’t already intrinsically know. To me, a good essay reeks of what we know, what we have explored and what we are seeking to know, and it is a damn pity when a teacher robs us any part of that triad.
You are only wrong when your facts are wrong, distorted by prejudice or bigotry, or so steeped in self-indulgent arrogance that your words fail to resonate with any kind of lasting ring—like a drum without a skin or a harp without a string.
You are equally wrong when you simply spin words into a song without music, or you pen words without meaning and foundation in your own heart—without the essence of the real and palpable you to speak with a clarity that helps others to see and feel and experience “your” experience.
A reflection is simply your recreation of your inner experience of experience. In reflecting we see our warts and blemishes clearly until those imperfections are diminished by the truth and sincerity of our search for meaning and substance to give voice to that search—and that search should extend beyond yourself. No doubt, if you wondered something, someone else wondered the same thing—and maybe even wrote about it.
Keep exploring until your inkwell is dry and your head is emptied.
And only then should you write your essay…
There is not a rubric for reflective thinking and writing. All I can ask is that you be aware of what you are thinking and feeling and to ask yourself why you are thinking and feeling that way. After almost any good meal, none of us really struggles to find words to express our satisfaction with the meal; likewise, if what we eat is pretty horrible, we can also readily find the words to express our dissatisfaction.
But it is never as easy with intellectual satisfaction or dissatisfaction because we are seldom as clear as to why we like or don’t like a piece of literature. Maybe it is because it is our intelligence on the line. Food is pretty straightforward. If you hate peppers, anything made with peppers is distasteful—and few people will judge you harshly; however, if you don’t like poetry…well, you are either ignorant, bigoted or stupid—or at least other more well-read people will smugly feel that way about you, even as they feign politeness.
Like birds of a feather, we gather together,
‘Cuz they’re feeling exactly like you…
I am not afraid of being a white minority.
I had lunch today with a Jamaican drummer, a Ugandan farmer, and a Senagalese potter. I don’t say this out of pride, for we gathered together simply because we are the old guys working in a young persons’ place. Our conversation was far from noble (unless unpretentiousness is noble) but simply eating together was an experience of nobility–a subtle reminder of what is possible. I have lived long enough and broadly enough to recognize the essential principles of goodness–‘and that has been my continuing consolation. Sappy as it sounds: we are all practically the same. But, this fear of being a minority is the core of what is powering the republican campaign. It is a profound irony for a platform that cherishes individual freedom, but it is still a stunning reality. Our 350 years or so of democratic experience has revealed both the sublimity and baseness of majority rule, so much so that I am equally fearful if either party gains the upper hand, but it does not appear that any true and noble warrior will arrive on the battlefield to save us.
So we are left to ourselves and whatever core of nobility that is within us.
As a white American, I am not immune to the angst of possibility. White America has distorted and abused the inalienable rights of minority Peoples time and time again, and if life teaches us anything, it is that the day of reckoning will always come. I remember reading one day the words of some European philosopher who wrote, “that which is not sustainable cannot continue.” These words have lingered in my consciousness for many years. Ever the optimist, I used this sentence to deny and belittle the fatalists among us: the seas will not rise; the next apocalyptic war till not happen; famines will not engulf us, and change will not destroy us because I believed in the power of collective wisdom to act before the tipping point of inevitability.
I don’t believe that anymore.
As a teacher at a pricey independent school struggling to be inclusive, I have been forced to sit through dreary and pedantic seminars about our white privilege. At the time, I despised being lectured to and admonished by pathetic apologists for my race. In my mind (or at least my previous mind) the sins of our fathers and mothers is not passed on to the sons and daughters, most of whom are belly-full of optimism and are freshly bound by enlightenment to a new paradigm of equality and justice. My whiteness is not a blemish any more than a deformed branch is a tree. It is, however, a dark and menacing shade to any non-white who lives “beneath” it. To not see this, recognize this, and not be appalled by this is to be a sub-human dirt-bag.
It is the tribalism of race that makes us racist. To ignore this is fantasy and hyperbole. Moving beyond that tribalism is a monumental task, but also a necessary journey—an odyssey—that we must make to create a pure democracy in line with the original nobility of our Constitution. For the most part, the word “racist” is obsolete. No one really knows what it means, and we throw the word around with reckless and dangerous volleys of stinging venom. Racist has become more of a root word, a prefix we attach with casual abandon for the purposes of expediency to whatever suits our point of view and whatever belittles those who oppose us. Here and now, the loose and reckless “racist” word is being thrown about with righteous smugness by the left and attached to any person who expresses an inkling of solidarity with the republican platform. Incessant derision only widens the gaping maw between people and parties, and friends and communities until the very notion of free speech becomes a pathetic and gratuitous mockery of itself. Your life–and the way in which you live your life–needs to be your first, last, greatest and most memorable statement.
There is no race that can or should be proud of their history if that history is to be looked at in its totality. We are evolving creatures at odds with our instincts. We stubbornly preserve our own in the cycle of creation and we will try to overpower anything that stops that cycle. This instinct to survive and perpetuate our own is deeply embedded through the millennia of generations and is not easily undone. It seems to be our incessant folly to deny this, so we are now entwined and paralyzed in a sluggy mud of our own making. T.S. Eliot once wrote in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:”: “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,/ have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?”
If you’re not blind, you will see we are at the tipping point of our crisis. We cannot have our tea and cakes and blithely go about eradicating the narrowness of our tribalist thinking. What is real is not hard to see. We are now an enmeshed world of races that needs to act–for the sake of ourselves–as a single tribe of humans–a tribe that can still remember and sing the many songs of our many races that does not mistake and reword prejudice for pride. It is not an artificial globalism; it is a reality we have to embrace and breathe into the actions of our lives. Our melodies may start out discordant, but maybe, somehow, we will at least find a common rhythm to which we can march together. It will never happen if we sing in the narrow halls and conventions of our own minds or huddled within gossiping flocks of sameness, consoled by a common and dull conformity. It will only happen if everybody is in the bigger hall together, searching and floundering for a common key in which to start singing.
And if you don’t, fate has the upper hand, and you will get what you get, and, sadly, you will be left out of the right side of the inevitable.
Wisdom starts in non-action…
The doing and non-doing are the equal balance. Without the luxury of contemplation there would not be a prioritizing of need versus want.
Wisdom balances physical reality…
Wisdom does not shuffle tasks out of view but finds a way to balance the competing demands of daily action.
Wisdom creates possibility…
Wisdom creates time and opportunity, more than depletes and enervates it. Wisdom intuitively creates and gives energy to what needs to be done, what can be done, and how to get done what needs doing.
Wisdom moves with fluidity…
Tread deliberately. Move with grace and dignity. To do what needs to be done in a desperate way or at a frenetic pace is not wisdom. A wise person moves through life without displacing the world around himself or herself.
Wisdom accepts our humanity…
Wisdom does not pass judgment on oneself. Don’t be angry at your situation or yourself. This will only be like pulling the load of everything through everything that needs to be done; hence, little will actually get done.
Wisdom is rooted in prayer…
Wisdom breathes in the cloud of unknowing and seeks clarity out of the mist of what is unknown. Prayer reveals the strength that is already a part of you, built into you and is reborn through you.
Wisdom does the work of contemplation…
Wisdom gives oneself to the task at hand. It lives within itsef. Cut one board all the way through. Let one task be important and finish that task. Wisdom accepts help, but does not demand, search for, or expect it.
Wisdom keeps its distance…
If you constantly shift the soil around the seed, the seed will never sprout, nor can you will anything to mature before its time. Stand back at a greater distance and see the problem in its completeness.
Wisdom is infinitely patient…
Wisdom cannot will a tree to grow. It can only create space and time for that tree to grow and realize its true potential.
Wisdom sees illusion as illusion…
Wisdom discerns what is palpable and real from what is not real and distills facts from opinions. This is true for both the physical and the mental realities of our lives.
Wisdom does not try to escape from itself…
Wisdom embraces the struggle of the search. Wisdom does not fear the suffering, loneliness and struggle that is an inextricable part of itself.
Wisdom practices love and devotion…
Words are only real when made palpable. It is not enough to simply feel love. It must be practiced, cultivated and strengthened in actions both big and small. Learn to know who you love and why. Create some kind of real gift every day.
*I tend to make my actions too subtle to even be noticed. I will do things that double as satisfying to me; hence, they are not pure and unencumbered. A clean kitchen is good for me, too. A pile of wood split of the winter keeps me warm as well. Flowers or a card on a special day are not particularly special. I need to remove myself from the gift and make every gift of love a gleaning of selflessness. It is the common day that merits the uncommon gift.
Wisdom laughs at itself…
Wisdom embraces the folly of itself. The very act of “searching” for wisdom creates a paradox. Recognizing these paradoxes is an opportunity to laugh at and rethink the journey. Rooted in reality and the flaws in our “human-ness,” our mistakes should be embraced with a sense of humor and redirected with newly enlightened joy at our ongoing discoveries.
Wisdom sustains itself…
Wisdom regenerates itself because it lives on so little and returns so much. It does not rely on good things happening, luck or opportunity. It simply is and cannot wilt under any sun.
Wisdom maintains dignity…
Wisdom never loses faith in the importance and dignity of the self. Gandhi argued that true dignity can only be given away by us, not taken from us.
Wisdom knows what it does not know…
Lack of knowledge is never an impediment to wisdom. Wisdom knows what is parochial from what is universal and accepts the limitations of individual understanding and perspective.
Wisdom is contentedness with itself…
Wisdom lives out the dictates of itself with grace, magnanimity and a humble reserve. It is not a happiness that is shared for an external reward. It is a contentedness with ourselves that does not seek or expect the extrinsic harvest of adulation or the gratification of a higher social status. It is like grass in a field bursting forth in the rain and hunkering down in the droughts of life. Wisdom survives because it is ready for and open to the vagaries and vicissitudes of life.
Very jealous today of all the folks I see spending time with their respective moms–and sad for those who can’t and for those whose wives were taken from their families too early in life…
This is my remmebrance of my “mum” who died several years ago.
I ran into an old friend one day after visiting my mom, who was entering what we all knew were her last days or weeks. Struggling for words to express his sympathy for both myself and my mom’s condition, he said, “Mary is not the mother you knew.” I guess in a way, none of us are ever that person whom we knew. Every day is a new contract with a life that simply—and often painfully and poignantly—comes with new terms and conditions that we have no choice but to accept and embrace with dignity, grace, and wisdom. No matter what life threw at mom, she accepted the terms put before her; and the world—and especially our world—was always a better, more loving, and infinitely richer place because of her; and though at the end she was not the person we remembered, she was always the mother we had, and she somehow managed to make everyone around her feel “mothered” right up until the very end.
She hated whenever I called her “Ma,” but, still, she was always “Ma Fitz” to anyone whose own mother was displaced by time, fate or distance. Even the toughest kids in town knew that as soon as any one of them placed a foot on Fitz territory, the rules of Ma Fitz were all that mattered. But, along with those rules came a woman who accepted anyone, anytime into a house already crammed with kids. We learned early and often that it is not the size of the house that matters, but rather, the size of the door—and like loading a dishwasher—there’s always room for one more.
On a Sunday night, some months ago, I walked into my mother’s room at Concord Park, and without thinking, I went straight to the refrigerator. It’s the same mechanical motion I’ve made every day that I’ve walked into her kitchen since I was a little kid—no matter where she lived. I didn’t even know what it was I was looking for, but I knew that mom had to have something in there for me.
Maybe I am hungry to know that Ma will still feed me. The refrigerator from my childhood—bursting with unending trips to Stop and Shop, Triple A, and Star Market is now a small countertop square in the corner of an uncluttered kitchenette. I open it and stare at the small bottle of ginger-ale, the pint of milk, the dainty plate of cookies and the half a sandwich, and drift back into the memories that persist and gnaw and flow out of that small space.
I still expect to see gobs of grapes, oranges, and apples; chocolate pudding, leftover tuna casseroles and Shepard’s pie, Appian way pizza, kool-aid, custard, baloney; and eggs: pickled, deviled, scrambled, and boiled; and potatoes: fried, mashed, hashed and rehashed in the unending evolution of necessity. But sometimes, when times were harder (times that were never actually mentioned but were full of green stamps and coupons) mom made potato buds: dry flakes with carnation instant milk and two tablespoons of butter, mixed into a pudding-like potato that was a perfect place to hide the peas, beets, boiled onions, liver, cod and other scourges of an Irish Catholic childhood; food that kept us at the table long after dinner, stubbornly poking and dabbing the edges with tears and a fork until someone—and rarely mum—relented in their stubbornness. And when we were really young and the milkman came everyday, we pulled out the whole milk with cream tops in glass bottles with paper caps; EJ, our almost epic father, would paw the top shut and shake the heavy cream back into the milk itself, exhorting us to imitate his practiced perfection—which none of us could do—and someone always spilled the milk on the cracked formica table and vinyl chairs, and he always screamed, “Every night! Somebody has to spill the milk every single night!”
And then after the mopping rags, dinner resumed in the chaotic recollections of the day; fights about whose night it was to do the dishes and who didn’t mow around the trees, who got seconds last night, and who got a C in penmanship, and who shouldn’t get two hydrox cookies for dessert because they weren’t smart enough to hide their peas in the potato buds!
And we sat in the same seats: I had little sister Annie on my right, always holding on to her waitress pad from Friendliest that she used to take our drink orders and would nod her head and say “thank you very much” and move on to the next of us; and little brother Tommy on my left who we could always get to laugh (and eventually spill his milk) even when he had no clue why he was laughing; and my big sisters staring across from me: Eileen, with her studious perfection and black and white perception of right and wrong, who for some reason Mum put in charge of making sure my bed was made and my room was clean—and who fined me a quarter when it wasn’t, but still I took her to Russo’s on my birthday when I could only bring my best friend; Mary Ellen with her CCHS sweatshirts and unending commentary on everything good, bad, cute or not under the sun—a gift she keeps to this day, and who came to every game I ever played and made the scrapbooks I would never make; and Patty, so old I hardly knew her, until she died so young that I can’t forget her….
And in the overstuffed kitchen, dad’s back was crunched almost against the basement door, and mom was pressed against the dining room wall—the room with the walnut table and eight matching chairs that we never seemed to use—like a museum stuffed with bone china and silverware that we polished every Christmas, bought, I’m sure with the green stamps and coupons. We could live without the dining room; but we lived and grew in the kitchen. We gathered in that kitchen everyday like chattering birds drawn to a stubbled and time-worn field—and out of that space we were reborn each day.
Every morning mom poured the Wheaties, boiled the oatmeal and cut the grapefruit while we listened to Joe Green in the BZ copter mumbling unintelligible warnings about tie-ups at the Alewife circle and sang along to “Watch me wallabies feed, mates, watch me wallabies feed.” Dad would grab his briefcase and we’d all try to be the first one to scream “Bye dad!” in a cacophony of competition, and, as if on cue, mom would sneak behind me and hold my head while I jerked convulsively, and she’d rub a warm wet cloth across my face and straighten my clip on tie and try to force down my cowlick and pick at my ears until I was fit to be presented to Sister Jean Beatrice—and, by some sort of convoluted math, to God himself. And then she’d sit in her chair, quietly, and write her own mother a letter.
Marion Fahey, 84 John St. Dalton MA. Every single day she’d write her mother a letter.
One of us could get the letter paper; and one of us could get the envelope; one of us would get to lick the stamp; one of us could put it on the letter; one of us could carry it to the mailbox, and the last one could lift up the metal flag. I never knew it was a ritual of perfection—a continual journey into the heart of the mystic love of family. You never know, but still, you remember.
Over the past few years, Alzheimer’s has slowly chipped away at the edges of her memory, but never to the point where she lost any of her true self. One day she’d remind me that it’s my childhood friend Danny Gannon’s birthday, and on the next day she’d ask me who my pretty children are…and like polite grandkids they would dutifully tell her their names once again, except for Tommy: “You know me Grandma, I’m Tommy!” and who’d crawl on her lap and ask for a kiss—“Not that kind of kiss—a chocolate kiss.” And she’d smile and say, “Of course, I know you. You’re Tommy.”
I’d go to see her and we’d look at ads for cars in the Boston Globe. She wanted a Toyota. “Your father loved his Toyota.” I smile to her, “That’s because Toyotas were cheap, and dad loved cheap.” It didn’t matter that she would never drive again. It didn’t matter that we would have the same conversation the next day. It didn’t matter that soon she might slip into a cloud of unknowing. It only mattered that she was there and in the magic and mysterious majesty of memory, and she will always be here.
We all remember mom, Mary, Mrs Fitz, and Ma Fitz in our own ways, and I know all of you remember her for what she did “for” you. Maybe she knit you a sweater, or sewed a first communion dress for you, or showed you how to quilt or bake or fry or can, or freeze. Maybe she made you dinner, washed your clothes, gave you a room for a few days, weeks, or months or a place to come on Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, or any common night when you were hungry for love and acceptance. Maybe she played bridge with you, or took you to White’s Pond, Stinson Lake, Tenney, Waterville or Cannon, or took you to dinner at Russo’s, Friendlies or Jimmies, or drove one or two or three hundred miles to be with you on a special day—or on any given day—when life was too special to go uncelebrated or too crushing to be alone. Maybe she taught you how to be a mother, a friend, a wife, or simply a good person. Maybe she let you marry one of her children and then loved you more than her own kids. Maybe she taught you how to never yell, but just give you that look. (Only Patty seemed to have mastered that look…The rest of us find it easier to yell.) It is easier to remember Mrs. Fitz than to be like Mrs. Fitz.
Sometimes God takes one to touch and teach many. Today is that day. God has blessed us by putting mum into our lives, and though our memories grow from different soils in different gardens, we live today through a shared memory.
Nurture those memories. Hold them. Cherish them.
Thanks. Mum always loved a party.
I wonder what the years have really taught me about writing and music. I have gotten so used to preaching and teaching that I am a bit looped by the thought of writing—as in how I wrote before (or how I will claim I wrote) before settling into this somewhat comfortable and safe life I have—a life that is as rare and fine as life can be, but I feel myself getting that itch to rediscover who I am as a writer. poet, and songwriter. I need to know there is a next time around and that this is that time.
In many ways, writing is an addiction for me: I come outside to my porch, or settle in on the couch by the fire, and I write—but mostly essays, journals (such as these), long preambles to assignments, and reflections that are short enough to be interesting to me, but not so long as I really need to think about what I write
And I have my book, The Three Rivers Anthology, that I can curate with a few more insertions, and I have my beloved websites, several somewhat messy (but getting less messy) sites that at least prove that I exist as a writer and a performer and a low-level scholar of how to write well.
But to write a new poem with any level of depth or breadth is…hard.
To write a song that is more meaningful than clever is…hard. I feel my age in the same way as when I jog down the road or climb on the exercise bike—like it is a necessary but cumbersome evil, and any excuse is a good excuse.
But I need to say I am working on a new folio ( I hate the term EP) of songs and not just a rehashing and reconstructing of song fragments from old journals. More so, I need to “know” that I am working on a new folio of songs. Damn good songs. Songs that reflect whatever wizened and vine-riped thoughts and ideas I still have within me.
Funny though: I really don’t care whether or not people actually like the songs as much as I need to like them. If it becomes a desperate search and a losing battle, then so will my songs be about desperation and loss.
Though I suspect the songs will be somewhat decent, and I can always force a poem to fruition—if I have the time; if I make the time.
More than likely it will mean stealing time and carving it not out of the day, but out of myself. I will need to shed more of my teacher shell (and it is, often, a shell, not a conviction or a mandate—though teaching seems to be the way I will have to live for some more years. Fenn School is good to me and I am good to it, and unlike Odysseus I am not ready to cut my ties to luscious nymph Calypso!).
I am not ready to leave my Thursday nights at the Colonial Inn, for it is my solace and my platform and my way of keeping music alive in me and sharing through me and remembering through me.
I am not ready to reimagine how or why I live. I am BLESSED beyond imagination at my good fortune on this earth. My family—Denise and kids and friends—will always trump any moment in time and place. I need them and me to know and feel and truly experience that my love is unalterable and immutable in the face of any vicissitudes.
There is no Fate in my love for who I am, nor will be a marionette in a choreographed dance—unless it be that I am fated to joy, simplicity and a genuine humility to my Graces.
I just want to tap into what is left in me and to give lasting and ineffable form to the moiling juices of my heart and soul and being.
So please, be with me, humor me and share yourself with me on this journey.