Sensing Journey with David Appelbaum, 2022

David Appelbaum

Interview by Sarah Wyman, fall of 2022

  • Listening to others: to what the people you meet are offering to you.

We walked near the Ridge off 299 on a very cold morning. Then we sat inside by a fire and continued the conversation. David offered a high-level view on the social field or system, the shared topic that ultimately emerged. I provided little context for our conversation, so the first part moved towards the purpose of the questions. At first, David seemed to think I spoke from an administrator’s fix-the-institution perspective rather than a broader consideration of humans in relationship. By the end, his thoughts about interconnections and humanity’s prospects began to manifest.

  • Listening to yourself: to what you feel emerging from within.

I went to David as a poet-mentor and hoped to come away with inspiration to write poetry. The outcomes were more concrete, and I admired his resistance to the questions themselves. On reflection, I gravitated away from existential questions, the koans, to our more personal conversation after the prescribed interview. We discussed looking on our lives from the margins, shifting focus or goals as writers/ professors/ thinkers, and why we did. Fingering those bruises and returning to them, disappointments in life, the brutality of academic environment, of the “price we pay for teaching at a state school,” meaning often potential publishers do not take us as seriously as they should. Rumi says, “wounds are where the light enters” and though we didn’t dwell on this harm or speak in specific detail, we did acknowledge difficult passages and what we learned.

  • Listening to the emerging whole: to what emerges from the collective and community settings that you have connected with.

David validated the process itself – taking the time to have this conversation, ask these questions, think about them as the most valuable prototype we could devise. David seemed to exist on the periphery, especially of the institution. The way he described the social field (mycelium) suggested we are always already interconnected – is Eddy looking to establish or illuminate something that is there already? I hope so. The idea of needing to know one’s own story before seeking those of others also seemed significant, as David spoke against ego but also from a very individual perspective, returning to the fundamental philosophical questions Who am I? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life?

Sensing Journey:

What personal experience or journey brought you into your current role? 

David does not easily define his role, although he does see himself as a teacher. He still has trouble calling himself a poet, which means something very different now than it did when he was a teenager, writing poems. At this point, David thought we were speaking more specifically about SUNY New Paltz.

What issues or challenges are you confronted with? 

Too many demands on our time, too many tasks to do, so it takes years (18 for us) to get together and have this conversation. Looking at our lives, we need to affirm what took place, what was given, rather than what we wanted to happen or our ambitions. As an emeritus professor, he is underutilized as a teacher.

Why do these challenges exist? 

In the words of Emily Dickinson, “I am a society.” Each of us is composed of many parts that claim sovereignty. We need to recognize the wholeness of ourselves and be available enough to see this complexity. The human self is not easy to access.

What challenges exist in the larger system? 

Communities are invisible, except to themselves. We are all expected to play particular roles in society, and this limits us.

What are the blockages?

Social and political designs.

What are your most important sources of success and change?  

Living a good life radiates its effects on others.

What would a better system look like for you? 

We cannot envision the system. David expresses great concern about the social injustice in the world, the lack of care for the impoverished, the inequalities which he sees as symptoms of death. Nevertheless, David is optimistic about the human race. He believes humans are good and there will be no surprise chapter of our complete destruction. We need to look at results that are local and confined.

What initiative, if implemented, would have the greatest impact for you? For the system as a whole?

During the 1960s David became disenchanted with the drive for pictures of social change. David spoke about his wife Kate who meets weekly with an immigrant daughter to work on her reading and simply to connect. This sort of sustained interaction is extremely important.

If you could change just a few elements of the system, what would you change?

David did not seem to take this question’s idealistic bait. He was skeptical about the possibility of setting out to bring practical change.

If the social field (or the living system) of the visited organization or community were a living being, what would it look and feel like?

It would be disseminated, non-contiguous. Maybe mycelium, invisible, so we have no idea of the depth of connectivity and individuation, mysterious in its functioning, not known, an invisible keeper.

If that being could talk: what would it say (to us)?

Be attentive.

If that being could develop—what would it want to morph into next?

The mother goddess, maybe Aphrodite, goddess of birth.

What is the generative source that allows this social field to develop and thrive?

A wish to know who we are and what purpose we serve. Plato’s Socratic questions Why are we here? and What is the meaning of life? Maybe a return to these questions constitutes David’s wish for fundamental social change.

What limiting factors prevent this field/system from developing further?

Lack of attentiveness. Our idea of ego separates us from each other. We have no awareness of our interconnection. We need to be sensitive to the fact that we are already connected. Later on, we talked about the fact that college students seem less inclined to read books and we wonder what this means for our disciplines and the world.

Moving in and out of this field, what did you notice about yourself?

Resistance that limits knowledge. The illusion of an emergent ego. My will not to be loved; a denial of the force of my compassion.

What ideas does this experience spark for possible prototyping initiatives you may want to take on?

What we are doing now is what we need to be doing: having this walk and talk. David recalled a Zen story: many starfish were washed up on a beach. A person walked along randomly picking one up and throwing it back into the sea. Another person asked why they bothered when there were so many. The one tossing replied, “it matters for this one,” and continued. We both remembered Professor Peter Kaufman who loved that story and included it in his final book, Teaching with Compassion.


  • What was most surprising or unexpected?

I expected we would talk about poetry which we didn’t until later, but we did talk about paying attention and being present, which is sort of the same thing. I was very surprised that David has trouble calling himself a poet when I have such admiration for his work, and he established and ran Codhill Press for many years. I was curious about the degree to which David feels isolated as a retired professor but also about the many communities he belongs to, including family which he mentions often.

  • What touched me? What connected with me personally?

I was touched by how quickly David could go to the fundamental existential questions of being. How he could speak against ego while still manifesting the intelligence that belongs to him. I connected with the hesitation to define oneself by one’s art, even if that is a central element I value about myself. I appreciated his acceptance of the chaotic aspects of being – the intensity of too many pulls on our time and attention. The focus on being attentive is also the message on the back of his book of poems The Earthworm Jar (2000) which I had been reading. To notice and attend requires slowness and focus, two practices that seem to escape me despite being on sabbatical. This conversation was very valuable to me as it held me in one space and allowed me to reflect on David’s ideas. To be honest, I didn’t feel up to an intense exchange, and this was a way for me to sit back and listen deeply. Even this activity, which usually comes easily to me, feels out of reach, due to present distractions and worries. I noticed the few snowflakes as they fell on the frigid gray morning, stayed on the side of David’s good ear, and we both missed the warm sunrise sun that hit the Ridge cliffs of the Preserve we noticed, separately, long before our meeting began.

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