“Scaffolding” is something professional teachers talk a lot about. It’s a simple concept: just like the temporary structure used by builders to provide structure to a wall until it is complete and able to stand on its own, scaffolding in education means the kinds of supports that teachers temporarily put in place to help a child learn a new skill that would otherwise be just out of their range. Rather than letting a child become frustrated with their inability to accomplish something, the teacher provides just enough assistance to get them the rest of the way there. Once the child has done it with help, they are both better prepared and more motivated to learn to do it on their own.

But scaffolding isn’t just for children. If we’re all in a learning mode, then any of us can benefit from this kind of support, even those who are ostensibly teachers.

The nice thing (okay, one of the many nice things) about the Ruhi Institute’s curriculum for children’s classes is that the program grows with the teacher. New teachers start working with a group of 5- and 6-year-olds (or, just as likely in a neighborhood with no children’s class program yet, 5- to 11-year-olds) on the Grade 1 materials. The curriculum is simple at that age: short prayers, repetitive songs, one-sentence quotations, stories that are one to three paragraphs, games with just a couple rules, and basic coloring sheets. Not only is all of this well within the ability of most 5-year-old children, it’s also well within the ability of a new teacher. In Grade 1, everything from what song to sing to what examples to use in illustrating vocabulary words is provided. And tools for tracking basic information like attendance and lessons learned by each child are printed right there in the same book that holds all of these self-contained lessons. Easy breezy, lemon squeezy.

In Grade 2, the children are a little older. They’ve had a bit more experience with the process. Instead of coloring, they’re drawing their own images. Instead of rule-oriented games, they’re working on guideline-oriented theater activities. And instead of each lesson being laid out for a beginning teacher, beginning lesson planning skills come into play, like choosing appropriate songs from a collection that they compile over time.

Grade 3 brings in more academic skills for children, and more extensive planning and organization for teachers. Stories are selected and adapted from historical sources, for example, and dramatic exercises are developed with less guidance from the materials. New skills, like asking questions to check for comprehension, are fully covered in the text so that teachers can learn how to add this component to their classes without worrying yet over the quality of the questions themselves.

I’ve not taught Grade 4, 5, or 6 yet, but it presumably builds both the complexity of the class and the skill of the teacher in a similar way.

Why is this scaffolding of service so robust in the children’s class program? Well, it’s the most highly developed branch course from the main sequence of courses. Many people will study the Grade 1 materials as they climb their way up the trunk of the main sequence of courses of the Ruhi Institute. Teaching children is such a core piece of the community building process that it’s the third book in the sequence. So even people who want to focus on animating junior youth or tutoring older youth and adults will learn the basics of teaching a children’s class, well enough to explain the curriculum to a curious parent or substitute teach as needed. But the real learning comes from those who decide to actually dedicate themselves to the act of teaching. And it’s these folks who will go on to study and teach Grade 2, Grade 3, and so on. It’s a specific branch of learning for those who are devoted to it, but it’s not necessarily meant for everyone.

Right now, there are many branch courses that are offered in different regions or localities as the need emerges. The second book of the main sequence, Arising to Serve, helps people learn to visit friends and share information about the Baha’i teachings with them. In some places, a branch course has emerged, helping those dedicated to home visits learn to share complex information like health and sanitation guidelines. I was lucky enough to be able to study a branch course for raising up academic schoolteachers when I lived in a country where this was an important area of service. But the children’s class program is the only globally-implemented branch course of the Ruhi Institute at the moment, and it has had years to be grown, developed, and refined. The materials themselves have changed quite a lot since I first studied them, and this is a direct result of feedback from teachers around the world.

I don’t know what the next steps are for the development of the Ruhi Institute, aside from the fact that both the main sequence and dedicated branches will continue to grow into a comprehensive and wide-ranging system of distance education spanning the globe. But I am grateful to be able to have faith in the fact that, however our service evolves, we will always find ways to accompany one another, every step of the way.


If you’ve been following the Baha’i Blogging Challenge for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I fell off the wagon with daily posting this last week. A combination of health challenges, job loss, and garden-variety stress combined to create a perfect storm of overwhelm. I even quit reading. (And anyone who knows me in person knows that’s a really big deal. I usually read 1-2 books a week.)

I’m hoping to get back in the saddle, but regardless of my posting schedule over the next several days, I wanted to let folks know that I’m still here and okay.

I’ve been dealing with a fair bit of upheaval in my life in the last week or so. Honestly, people are surprised that I’m taking it as well as I am, especially when I regularly crumble when faced with less serious crises. The thing is, I’m ornery by nature. If people around me are comfortable, I have this unbearable itch to point out the flaws in our precious plans. When they’re sad, I’m inexplicably cheery. And when disaster strikes, I’m at my best: calm, collected, and organized. I should work in an emergency room. (Except that needles make me woozy and I can’t stand up for longer than an hour without my hip giving out or function without consistent sleep. Okay, I should definitely not work in an emergency room.)

So I don’t have a ton to share right now, except that this song by Luke Slott has kept me going through a lot of trials over the last several months. Something about the combination of the words, the voices, the contemplatively shifting time signature that gives space to hold it all … it just works for me, whether I’m sitting alone or walking outside. It’ll get stuck in your head in the best way, reminding you that struggles and sadness aren’t unique, they’re necessary.

The lyrics are from The Hidden Words, a brief book of aphorisms written by Baha’u’llah. Half of them were written in Arabic, while the other were written in Persian. This is Arabic Hidden Word #48:

O SON OF MAN! For everything there is a sign. The sign of love is fortitude under My decree and patience under My trials.

You know what I didn’t expect to be such a huge part of my service as a coordinator?


I send a lot of emails.

Emails asking questions. Emails inviting people to various spaces, trainings, and gatherings. Emails sharing information. Emails clarifying the information that was already shared. Reminder emails. Encouraging emails.

I love meeting in person. I love visiting people, and talking on the phone.

But wow, is email ever useful.

It’s not a revolutionary new thing. It’s not fancy, and it’s not spiritually enriching or personally engrossing. It’s really not an exciting topic that makes everyone want to read your blog post. But it can be helpful if done right, and I feel like it’s something I’ve learned a lot about. So here it is: what I know about writing excellent emails.

Make your subject line obvious. If you’re writing marketing emails, you might want to be coy and try to make people curious enough to open the email and see what you’re selling. That kind of hidden agenda doesn’t work if you’re trying to build a culture of honesty and open consultation. If it’s about a prayer gathering on December 5, call it “December 5 Prayer Gathering,” perhaps with a “You’re invited!” as well. It’s not the best place for creativity.

If you’re asking for something, ask in the first paragraph, and repeat it towards the end. Things I often need to ask for are for people to register for an event, to fill out a survey, to attend a gathering, to respond to the email, to write a summary, or to gather and share some kind of data. If there’s a link that needs to be followed, make sure it’s repeated as well.

If something is important, make it stand out. I like to use bold type for dates and calls to action. Larger font size can be used sparingly as well. ALL CAPS DEFINITELY STANDS OUT BUT COMES ACROSS WITH A RUDE UNDERTONE THAT I’M NOT NORMALLY COMFORTABLE WITH IN EMAILS WHERE I CAN’T CLARIFY THAT I’M BEING FACETIOUS IN MY AGGRESSION. It’s easier to avoid.

Context is important, but it goes in the middle. The why of your request is important. Someone’s motivation for acting on your request is just as important as whether they do it, so give it some thought. But it’s incredibly frustrating to receive a pile of context before understanding what it’s supposed to be in relation to. Your high school English teacher was right when she said you needed an introduction with a thesis statement, a body, and a conclusion. If you find yourself becoming long-winded, write an outline. Most confusing communication could be vastly improved if people just took the time to outline their points in advance. (And I say this as someone who has coached a lot of people on their writing.)

Bullet points are your friend. On the other hand, that same English teacher probably also demanded full paragraphs with grammatically correct sentences. If you can say something in bullet points instead, it will probably be all of the following:

  • Easier to read.
  • More compelling.
  • Better organized.
  • Easier to write.

(See what I mean?)

And when you’re using bullet points, it’s generally understood that a subject and verb are not required.

Quote the guidance when you can, but do it briefly. It’s an email, not a deepening, but it’s always helpful to draw on the language we’ve been given. Look at how the Universal House of Justice quotes the Writings for excellent examples of how to quote beautifully in the middle of an explanation.

Always be encouraging. Always end on a positive note. Never miss an opportunity to share your appreciation and love. Even if you’re just shooting off a quick question about whether you need to print agendas for a meeting, a “Thanks for all your help!” can go such a long way. Accompaniment doesn’t stop just because you’re not meeting face to face.

Don’t abuse “reply all.” If it’s not necessary to bother everyone with your response to a chain, don’t. Make sure that you’re only writing to the people you really want to hear from you.

Bonus: If you’re offering an invitation and you have the time, people always respond better to beautiful images. Can it feel silly to design an invitation with photos of happy people engaged in a meaningful conversation when all the information is available in the body of the email? Yes. Do people respond more positively to beautiful images anyway? Absolutely. Just like a vase of flowers can make a gathering feel festive, a thoughtfully designed image makes an email feel important. If you’ve got even a little bit of skill (or can bumble your way around Canva), it can create a little oasis of beauty in someone’s inbox.

And that’s what I’ve got.

There’s nothing amazing here that hasn’t already been said by others, but if you’re looking to brush up on your online communication, this is a solid place to start. I hope it’s useful to somebody!

brazil junior youth group

A group of friends was discussing how a program grows in communities at varying stages of development, and the term “organic growth” came up and needed some clarifying.

In the beginning, growth is often a bit of a mess. Somebody tries something. Somebody else tries something else. Something catches on. Something else doesn’t. Maybe people talk to each other about what they’re doing, and maybe not. Patches of activity sputter to life and die out again. Conversations happen, or they don’t. Peopleusually individuals, but sometimes small groupsdo what they can, in whatever ways seem to open.

There’s not a problem with these initial messy efforts. It’s a beautiful mess, after all, seeing growth where there wasn’t any before. And it makes little sense to compare a community at this stage and feel terrible, comparing with more advanced communities that have all kinds of structures in place: teams focused on specific lines of action, coordinators for educational programs, committees thinking about quarterly cycles of activity, annual calendars, budgets, resources … all these things develop with effort and experience and time.

But sometimes, in an effort to avoid comparisons and feel better about where we are, we say things like “Well, we’re growing organically right now.” And that’s not necessarily accurate.

Organic growth, of course, isn’t the same thing as frenetic growth. It doesn’t mean the same thing as “without structure” or “without a plan.” Anyone who has ever gardened or taken regular walks in the woods has seen organic growth in action. A plant will absolutely adapt to the local environment as it sprouts and grows, taking advantage of light, moisture, space, and support wherever they may be found. But there is still a structure and an order to this growth. Stems grow before buds. Leaves appear at particular intervals in relation to one another regardless of the circumstances. Roots go down, stems up. Every individual is different, and yet they all follow a comprehensive plan. There is a framework for organic growth.

Why does this matter? Because if we conflate organic growth with frenetic growth, the opposite of organic becomes systematic. When it comes time to grow beyond one or two or five little hubs of activity we’re unable to step forward, because the next steps are what we have viewed as the antithesis of our strengths. We cling to freneticism in the name of naturalness, not understanding that growing into structure over time is also natural.

“Systematic,” in turn, doesn’t mean “rigid,” “hierarchical,” “forced,” or even “complex.”

“Systematic” can mean taking notes after your children’s class, so that a substitute can help fill in when you’re sick.

“Systematic” can mean you and a group of friends get together over dinner once a month to talk about what you’ve been doing and reflect on what you’ve learned.

“Systematic” can mean choosing your next steps on purpose, having looked at the needs and resources around you, rather than responding in the moment to real or perceived emergencies, or panicking about growing in all ways at all times regardless of your ability to address each area of growth effectively.

Sometimes, in learning to grow from beautiful mess to systematic growth, we forget the emergent and adaptive quality that is also at the heart of an organic approach.

We appoint someone to coordinate an activity when there is nothing yet to coordinate.

We push a particular line of action without stopping to consider whether there is a foundation that can be built upon.

We cut off an area of strength in order to adhere to an unhelpful conception of “balance.”

We insist on a single approach, rather than providing a framework and seeing what emerges.

If complacence keeps us stuck in the stage of beautiful messes, it’s impatience that drives us to the other extreme. Organic growth requires a calm sense of urgency that’s not particularly encouraged in today’s society. It’s something I struggle with on a personal level myself, often mentally swinging between “everything must happen now, and here is the exact method for achieving it” and “forget this, I’m just going to do what’s pleasant and convenient regardless of the need.” It’s consultation with others that helps keep me a little more focused and level. (Thanks, y’all.)

Organic growth is about creating an environment that challenges and encourages it. We weed, we water, we provide trellises or light or heat … and the plant grows. We know what roses or tomatoes or oak trees need, but the circumstances are always a bit different on the ground. Perhaps the soil here is more acidic, or the drainage is poor. This valley is prone to floods in May, this particular plant is prone to blight.

But the only way we learn these things about our local conditions is to get out there and start a garden. And if we’ve only read books about gardening n the past, it’s probably going to be a mess at first. Mud and tears and fits and starts.

It will be amazing when the whole world has gained so much experience that we can all move smoothly into true organic growth from the start. Until then, we’ll keep working through the stage of beautiful messes and into something appropriate and new, doing our best to help our gardens grow.


Let me tell you a story.

I started playing the cello in elementary school orchestra. I was lucky to go to school in a district that took the arts very seriously (more so than the sciences even, somewhat to the detriment of STEM-inclined students like my sister), and so orchestra was an option beginning in fourth grade. Every year my teacher would recommend I take private lessons, but dance and gymnastics were more important to me at that point, so there was never time for one more thing. Still, I had a decent theoretical and intuitive understanding of music thanks to my pianist father, so I did fine.

In middle school, I started developing joint pain. Gymnastics fell victim first, followed by ballet. I managed to keep up enough for theater, but by my junior year I wasn’t even engaged in that the same way. So at 16, I started private cello lessons.

My teacher, who had his pick of brilliant students, agreed to take me on because I was “interesting.” I could read music fluently, in multiple clefs. I could handle complex rhythms. I was keeping up with the other members of my high school orchestra. And as long as I did, my technique had never been dealt with. I was going to have to start over.

From scratch.

My first lesson, I wasn’t allowed to play a single note. After bow-hold exercises, I held the bow in my right hand, with both hands resting on my knees. I picked them up, and placed them correctly on the instrument, drawing two wide loops in the air. I put them back on my knees. I put them back on the cello. I put them back on my knees.

The next lesson I played open strings.

The lesson after that I played four-note scales. Then eight notes.

Then I finally had music placed in front of me. Suzuki Book 1. The first song? “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

I started to cry, just looking at it. I had been playing the cello for seven years. It was so humiliating. My friends were playing Bach, and here I was, playing baby music. My teacher, bless him, didn’t seem phased by this. He explained that we’d move through relatively quickly, but that my technique needed to be addressed at a foundational level before we moved on to more complex things. And that it would require hard work and practice, and a huge dose of humility, but never humiliation. There was nothing to be ashamed of in striving to be better, no matter what it looked like to someone on the outside.

I stayed after school every day and practiced by myself. Twinkle Twinkle. French Folk Song. The Song of the Wind. The Happy Farmer. Minuet in C. My orchestra teacher commented that it was so nice to hear the old songs again. I did move quickly, practicing every day. And I improved.

The next year, I found myself a section leader. My teacher moved to another country. But I’ve never forgotten the lesson in humility he taught me when he watched me cry to see a book of children’s songs.


I serve as a tutor of study circles, which are intended to raise capacity in individuals and communities to serve their communities. Each of the courses these study circles goes through includes three related units of study, and at least one practice. Both of these elements is essential for capacity to be built, and neither is particularly effective without the other.

The thing is, we all live in communities. We think we must know how to live together. After all, haven’t we been doing it as individuals for twenty, thirty, seventy years? Haven’t our families been doing it for thousands? Who doesn’t know how to be a community, anyway? A hermit, maybe. Certainly not us.

But the truth is that, while we’ve often been getting by, our technique is, frankly, terrible. And we need to start learning at the beginning.

From scratch.

This is why people who feel at the height of their influence struggle with the Ruhi sequence of courses. Book 1, called Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, includes three units, two of which have a practice component. The first is to read the Writings, carefully and with intent, every morning and evening. The second is to visit two Baha’is and study a prayer with them. Not even to pray, but to study the prayer itself, the same way the first unit teaches us to study on our own.

I have literally had people refuse to study with me, insisting that it is a waste of their time. As though looking at a few words together with fresh eyes were somehow a demeaning task when they were capable of so much more.

I’ve had people agonize over whether visiting someone in their home, even invited, were an appropriate avenue of service. Whether it was patronizing to study a prayer with someone else. Whether there was any use in it. Whether they shouldn’t just skip it and get on to the real acts of service, the exciting ones for books down the line.

But of course, if you can’t study fifty words with a friend, you can’t facilitate the study of hundreds in a group. If you can’t will yourself to talk about spiritual reality, you won’t be able to teach an entire class of children to pray. If you aren’t willing to visit a friend in their home, you will never work up the courage to build bonds of friendship with someone previously regarded as a stranger.

You won’t build community in your neighborhood.

You won’t build unity in your world.

It takes so much humility to understand that how we’ve learned to be in the world may have helped us cope, but it’s on some level fundamentally broken. That we need to re-learn something as basic as friendship, or neighborliness, or meaningful conversation.

It’s a real struggle to overcome the sense that we’re meant for something better than this, that we’re not children, after all, that we already have so much capacity already if people could just see it …

But if we can set it aside and practice the basics until we’ve really mastered them, the resulting music is so much stronger. And I know because I’m still here, trying my best, playing away.


I try and keep to universals so that anything I share here can be useful to anyone. But today I’m getting personal.

Because a few friends knew I was struggling with some personal issues, and took it to heart. And some of those friends serve on institutions.

Because I know the prayers of my Local Spiritual Assembly are with me.

Because I know the prayers of my Regional Baha’i Council are with me.

Because I know the prayers of my Auxiliary Board members are with me.

Because I know the prayers of my Continental Counselor are with me.

I’m a bit of a pessimist by nature, a bit withdrawn, slow to friendliness, slow to happiness, slow to hope or to love.

But the love of the individuals, the institutions, and the community around me are so palpable at times like this, I can’t help but to be happy.

There is a unity here, in my little Midwestern region, that I haven’t known anywhere else. And I wouldn’t trade it for all the progress in the world.

Reflection gatherings are one of the most useful tools I know of on this path of service I’m on, but I didn’t always realize it. Even now, I’m pretty sure that I only have a tenuous grasp on what they are and have the potential to be. Since this isn’t something that everyone has a lot of experience with, I thought I would share what I know about organizing reflection gatherings that are meaningful and successful.


What is the purpose of a reflection gatherings?

Reflection gatherings are intended to elevate, clarify, and unify a group’s vision of their service. They provide a space to think about the progress and challenges that they have experienced in the recent past, understand what has been learned, see next steps, and plan ahead for the future. They also provide context for what individuals have been experiencing and learning, both through study and through consultation with others.

First thing to consider: who should attend a reflection gathering?

There are many different types of reflection gatherings, all of which draw on a different subset of people. Perhaps the best known example is the cluster reflection, where all those participating in the community-building process from a particular geographic area (in the US, this is usually either several neighboring counties or a metropolitan area) gather along with those who are new to the process but would like to learn more about how to become engaged. This could include: tutors, animators, children’s class teachers, hosts of devotional gatherings, study circle participants and junior youth, local institutions such as assemblies, committees, and those serving in appointed roles … and more. Some participants might even live outside of the cluster, but travel to serve within it, especially in early stages of development. The main factor is their geographic focus.

But this isn’t the only kind of reflection gathering. Next week I’ll be hosting a children’s class teacher reflection for my state. Participants include anyone teaching, assisting with, or learning to teach Grade 1, 2, or 3 of the children’s class program of the training institute anywhere in the state of Indiana. Sometimes folks from neighboring states also join, and that’s not a problem, as we’ve never run out of room. This is a short gathering, only three hours or so.

Last week was a gathering for people all over our three-state region who are focused on learning about engaging youth and young adults in the main sequence of courses. While all of the participants were tutors, they had different roles in this particular learning process. Some mainly tutor those study circles, some primarily focus on visiting the families of youth, especially those who are younger and are still under the care of their parents. Some are animators who are working on helping to accompany other youth on this particular path of service. But all are committed to continuing the conversation in their own communities and widening the circle of people who are engaged in this area of learning. This gathering was just over two days long.

So you can really have a reflection gathering at any level. People who serve one particular neighborhood can benefit from a reflection gathering. People who are currently tutoring Book 10 of the sequence of courses. People who have started a new junior youth group within the last three months.

Second thing to consider: what questions are being asked?

Sometimes this is actually the first thing. In that case, the people coming are whoever is thinking about these questions. Having particular questions at the center of the gathering gives it purpose aside from just a recitation of recent events.

In the case of our group focused on youth in study circles, we have several questions that we started with at our gathering in August:

  • What is the nature of a conversation that attracts young people to join a Book 1 study circle?
  • What are ways and spaces in which study circles can be formed?
  • How can we accompany participants in Book 1 immediately into the field of action?
  • How can a cadre of tutors support one another in action and learning?

In November, we saw that we needed to focus more tightly (for now) on the first two questions, with an added question of how animators can also serve a role in inspiring youth to become engaged.

The point here is to show that the questions a gathering is focused on should be:

  • Few in number
  • Specific
  • Focused on immediate needs and steps
  • Answerable through action and reflection on action

A question like “How can we have lots of new study circles?” would be too broad. A question like “How can every cluster in our region have 50-100 new participants in study circles in the next three months?” while somewhat more specific, doesn’t make sense where most clusters in the region have yet to learn how to engage 10 new participants in study circles in a three month cycle. “How many study circles have taken place in our region over the last year?” is specific and easily answerable, but is rooted in study rather than action and reflection.

You can see how choosing the right questions can easily make a gathering fruitful and productive, or create confusion, boredom, or despair.

Third thing to consider: do you have something on which to reflect?

There is nothing sadder than a reflection gathering where, asked about their experiences, there is nothing to share, because nobody has been engaged in the process in question. More commonly is the situation where everyone has something to reflect on as an individual, but the experiences are so scattershot and unrelated to each other that there is not enough experience with any one particular thing to answer any questions about it.

In this case, it can sometimes help to include an experiential portion of the gathering, just so that everyone has something pertinent to talk about. For example, if a children’s class teacher gathering is focused on learning about how to effectively describe the nature of the program to parents in order to elicit their support for and reinforcement of the qualities being taught, part of the gathering could involve all the participants going out to visit with the parents of children in a local class and speak with them about the program.

Yes, this takes a fair bit of organizing. The organizer needs to consult with the teachers of the class, reach out to the families, organize times for them to be visited, assemble information and addresses for each family, put together pairs or teams, arrange transportation for those who need it, and then also help to coordinate the collection of information and the organizing of follow-up.

But it’s so much more effective than having a theoretical chat with a group of teachers about how they might go about talking with parents, should the opportunity arise.

Fourth thing to consider: where are you strong?

If you have a lot of things you could reflect on and are not sure where to focus, focus on your strengths. Where was there the most growth? It might feel a little backwards (I know my first instinct is always to shore up my weaknesses before anything else), but strength builds on strength. If your group is fantastic at starting new junior youth groups, it’s natural to build on that strength and focus on how to expand groups so that they have a sustainable number of participants over time. Those new and strengthening groups might very well inspire more adults to become engaged in study circles.

On the other hand, to ignore those small new groups in favor of throwing all your effort behind bringing new adults into the process means that the groups continue to form, meet for a while, and die out within a few months. The animators, without support, eventually become disheartened. The adults, seeing no long-term value to the community, fail to become engaged. Parents, having noticed that activities don’t last over the long term, don’t trust the teachers of children’s classes to stick around.

Yes, I’m making all this up. But there’s a real inertia involved in both growth and stagnation. Focus on what’s already moving and then move on from there.

Fifth thing to consider: stop considering, and start doing.

If you’re not having reflection gatherings because you’re not sure you could do them perfectly, just try something. Truly, some of the one’s I’ve put together over the years have been a mess, but they’ve always been a net positive experience. I’ll almost certainly look back over all this advice in a year and be so embarrassed by my lack of understanding.

That’s one of the side effects of blogging, I suppose. We put things out there whether we’re feeling totally prepared or not. Coordinating is a lot like that too, whether you’re serving in a formal role or just as one tutor in a group of friends who wants to help make things a little more organized. Maybe your first gathering is just about learning what you want to learn about, and that’s totally legitimate. As long as you’re focused on learning through service and moving forward, you’re doing it right.


Yestderday I was dealing with a family crisis and didn’t get the chance to write a new blog post, so instead of my regular reflections you get a poem I wrote a month ago. Sorry for the abrupt change of pace, but the blog must go on! #bahaiblogging

Two Reflections on Breath


I hadn’t been to the ocean
in years, didn’t have a reference
to say this is calm or this is wild, I only knew
that it pushed me back to shore
like an angry teenager, I told you get OUT,
and I laughed and punched back
again and again,
because there is such a fierce human pleasure
in fighting without anger, just because
it is difficult, and just because.


Not for nothing you fought,
and not only for your own personhood
—a woman lecturing from behind a curtain—
but because you had seen the ocean of His mercy,
run to the shore, and jumped in.


When my feet danced out from beneath me
and something pulled, I was unafraid,
I knew
I simply had to breathe
out but not in
until my feet were mine again,
until I was cradled again by air and sun and sky.
But my feet were somewhere
just too many inches out to sea
and salt water forced itself into my throat,
and I thought I can’t believe
I am going to be the idiot
who drowns in three feet of water.
This is my unbelieving mind.


And you walked willingly
to the theft that awaited you—
air from your lungs, years from your life,
words of poems you would never speak
and that the world would never hear;
there was silk around your neck
and songs in your soul,
until the animal part of you ceased
to twitch and think and beat in salty streams.

They threw your body down a well.


Until there was my body and there was the sky
and there was the fierce pain in my chest
and ashamed, I said Oh, there’s the family,
let’s go back and see what they need,
pretending to laugh
while the ocean ran from my nose
and I breathed—knives and needles and joy.


Then there was no more body
and no more sky,
only the ocean, closer than your life-vein.

You immersed yourself
and swam free.


Context. While Tahirih’s birthday is not known for certain, she was approximately my age on her death.

On failure

I was recently digging around through a bunch of links I had bookmarked, and came across an article by Carol Zou, who I had the pleasure of knowing when we lived and worked in the same neighborhood in Dallas, Texas. Carol is an artist whose primary form of art is empowering communities to create their own art. (If that sounds strange to you at all, sit with it a while. It’s actually a really helpful way of looking at artistic expression.) Anyhow, she published an article last year called Who is Allowed to Fail? Some things she notices:

  • A recently-arrived refugee must prove their business idea is foolproof in order to receive a $5,000 loan, but a middle class 18 year old can take out a student loan for ten times that without so much as a conversation about how they intend to pay it back, or even how they plan to successfully graduate.
  • A bank can get a bailout after making bad decisions with their money, but a renter will be evicted from their apartment when they start missing payments.

Anyhow, I don’t want to summarize the entire article, because it’s Carol’s work and you should read it for yourself. But it definitely got me thinking about the privilege of failure.

Part of this is the privilege of defining success and failure for ourselves. In the the Baha’i community, we’ve been encouraged to see past “narrow conceptions of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ that breed freneticism or paralyze volition.” We talk about a learning process, an experiment, rather than a failure. Failure to move forward and learn is a problem. Failure to adhere to a formula for results is not.

Artists get this. They’ll tell you about a “sketch” or a “draft.” It’s one of many, and we’re lucky when we’re in a community of others who get that.

But this freedom to focus on learning over results is a matter of privilege. When I was teaching at a school a decade ago, I was in charge of the Writing Club. At first, the 12- and 13-year-olds in my class made almost no progress with their writing. No matter how hard I worked to develop a meaningful prompt, they would spend inordinate amounts of time coming up to me and asking me to spell words for them, or erasing their handwriting and re-doing it neatly. They were shocked when I told them that we’re only making drafts here, that I cared not one bit about their spelling or their margins at this stage. That they could have as much paper as they wanted, that I would personally go to the store and buy everyone new notebooks if they ran out of space, that they could try and try again, in search of powerful language. That they could fail.

Children without paper who are graded on their work don’t get to say, “Oh, I don’t need immediate results, I just want to learn about improving my writing.”

After around four months, they did start writing some beautiful things, until I got sick and another teacher came in and scolded them for their sloppy work. That was a failure of mine that still weighs on me. I never did learn how to protect them from the needless critique of adults flush with power.

People with money for more notebook paper are allowed to fail. People with power are allowed to fail. People with social capital are allowed to fail. We expect it. We respect it. But not when it’s the wrong kind of people making the mistakes.

It would be really easy to let this kind of pervasive social attitude slip into the community-building process. That the educated, the wealthy, the powerful have the right to try and fail and reflect and learn and move forward, while those who are without need to be cared for and patronized and protected from their own failures-in-waiting, or abandoned to deal with the consequences of their lack of continual success.

In this kind of scenario, we get teachers who can snap at children, while children who lash out are expelled from the class. We get youth who are fed “education” bite by bite, without ever being invited to be protagonists in their own learning. We get adults whose lifetime of acquired skill and wisdom is never put to use, either for the fear of what response it might elicit, or from the assumption that it simply doesn’t exist.

We know the attitude is insidious. And as GI Joe says, “knowing is half the battle.”

But the other half, the half where knowledge gets put into action? That is the half of the battle where people tend to get hurt.

I want to think that we’re learning to write a rough draft of a community, in the truest sense of that word. But it’s not something you can build perfectly, then invite people inside, based on your limited vision of utopia. The community is the building process. And no matter how much paper it takes, we need everyone to have the chance to pick up their pencil and write their future, failing as they go.


Background image for the “On failure” graphic by Pink Sherbet Photography from USA (Free crumpled paper texture for layers) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons