Teaching and Learning and Caring Blog
EL PASO — It started at the dinner table. It was a Tuesday. Tuesdays were a “try a new recipe or fancy up an old one, invite people over, and sit down at the dining room table, light the candles” ritual. Josie, Raymundo, and Yolanda were there. My daughter asked us to choose a book to take with us into a post-apocalyptic world or to the proverbial desert island where we would be stranded and alone for an unknown length of time, perhaps forever. I remember only my own answer to the question.
I said I could not choose just one, but I would choose three that, together, were shorter than most books. One was The Little Prince, another, 101 Best Loved Poems, and the last, Zen Telegrams. Ninety-one pages, 93, 101…285 pages in all. These were the books that I could read over and over, books that would keep me company no matter what Raymundo and Yolanda had never heard of Zen Telegrams, a book I bought in the sixties, so I tried to tell them and then left the dinner table to go find it in the house. My daughter Josie was not a big fan of the book, but Raymundo was; Yolanda was dubious. Zen telegrams would become the theme of my last semester of teaching at UTEP.
Basically, a zen telegram starts with a picture, not a real picture of something, just a brushstroke with ink hinting at something. Add only a few words, if any, then send it off to the world in a reverent, “be here now” state of mind. Finally, the recipient of the telegram is supposed to think a little differently after seeing it. Some telegrams are serious and others are just fun. That’s the best I can do with a description. But, since no one sends telegrams anymore and few in the United States are Buddhists (zen is a type of Buddhism), it seems odd to call them zen telegrams. It will have to do until I come up with a better name.
Nevertheless, I started making new ones, first in small pocket sized composition books that reporters carry and then on 8 ½ x 11 copy paper. All three of my classes that semester were in the same room on the third floor of Old Main, so I would take one in the morning and tape it to the windows next to the entry door. After listening to the music of the day chosen by me or by a student who arrived early, we would talk about the day’s telegram. At first the students were recalcitrant; some of them probably thought I was losing it. I saw that their resistance came from a rigidity in thinking, and became determined to address it.
So there was a method to my madness. I wanted the students to become more flexible thinkers, to tap into the lateral and non-logical parts of their brains, to use thinking and feeling muscles that they weren’t accustomed to using. At first I had to explain everything, including lateral thinking. Then slowly someone would venture an explanation, and another would add to it. I left the telegrams there after class. Sometimes professors from other classes would come and ask me to explain; sometimes a student that was in my class would explain to a later class. And, if a student wanted to keep a telegram, I would take it down and give it away.
Then there was a morning, the day, that when I came to tape up my telegram, there was already one there. A student had made one, hurray! And this became more common, and they liked it. Now almost everyone could understand what we were doing.
The day of our final, several of us went around campus with chalk and left our telegrams on the sidewalks outside campus buildings. We chose which ones to use where. “Existential proportions” went outside the philosophy building, “on same page/not in book” at the library, and “heart has feet” at Fox Fine Arts. If you are ever stuck on an island, you can make zen telegrams in the sand with your fingers.