Building "THIS": How an Online Course Has Inspired Me to Continue Blogging

A confession.

After blogging for six years, I sometimes wonder if it is time to let go. Float away past the ether . . .

Free pin: hot air balloon

Free pin: hot air balloon

Instead of blogging, I could take photography and painting classes that are part of the “road not taken” I want to travel.

And speaking of travel, there’s that long bucket list.

Finally, there’s the mission of preparing for death and helping others do the same.

But I’m not yet ready to give up blogging as I continue my search. That’s why I decided last week to see how much memoir I might still have inside as I explore the Box in the Basement. I wasn’t being coy. Should I write a sequel to Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World?

Your comments on that post were so helpful! They help me to stay open in this place of indecision and exploration, waiting on the new call. That’s hard for an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs scale. πŸ™‚

My job right now is to dwell in possibilities.

That phrase from Emily Dickinson means more to me now because I’m “taking” the class called Modern and Contemporary Poetry. It’s a MOOC — a massive open online course — taught at the University of Pennsylvania to thousands of students throughout the world.

It’s an amazing experience and not what I expected. It’s actually intimate. The professor, Al Filreis, not only loves his subject, he has a wonderful collaborative pedagogy and a huge heart. He’s as selective as Emily Dickinson and as inclusive as Walt Whitman. He transforms the lives of many students.

Professor Al Filreis, leading the online class "ModPo" with his student assistants

Professor Al Filreis, leading the online class "ModPo" with his student assistants.

Two poems from that class are helping me right now.

I dwell in Possibility – (466)

By Emily Dickinson

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer House than Prose –

More numerous of Windows –

Superior – for Doors –


Of Chambers as the Cedars –

Impregnable of eye –

And for an everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky –


Of Visitors – the fairest –

For Occupation – This –

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise –

When Al Filreis teaches”I dwell in Possibility,” he does so by using the “collective close read” approach, asking each of his students to elaborate on each word of this poem. In rapid-fire succession, they dissect the metaphor of the house in the poem. The professor flings out a few ideas of his own, including this zinger:

Β “The word ‘this’ is the most important word in the English language.”

If this truly is the most important word, than this time, this place I dwell, this occupation of waiting and being open, this is the thing itself! And writing these words, this too, is my calling.

And you, dear reader, are implicated too. You are part of THIS.

Or to say it a little differently:

Song of Myself (1892 version)

By Walt Whitman

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Memoir sings the self, whether in the form of a blog post or a book.

My THISΒ  is to wait, write, and dwell, for a while.

What is your THIS? How do you spread wide your narrow hands to gather Paradise?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Audrey on September 17, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    Thanks for THIS post, Shirley! It’s thought-provoking and challenging. You bring out the importance of the THIS-ness of everything that matters and, especially, of THIS moment. THIS moment is everything.

    thank you, thank you.

    • shirleyhs on September 17, 2014 at 9:18 pm

      Thanks, Audrey. Al Filreis would be impressed at how well you got this concept. πŸ™‚ Thanks for starting the conversation!

  2. Laurie Buchanan on September 17, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    “My job right now is to dwell in possibilities.”

    Amen siSTAR!

    I love β€” absolutely love! β€” this post. It’s full of VIM and VIGOR (my mom’s words for energy and stamina). I’s filled with go-get-’em! It’s filled with Tony the Tiger’s Grrrrrrreat!

    My THIS?

    To be a channel for grace (my translation for “grace” is the immediate presence of Spirit).

    • Kathleen Friesen on September 17, 2014 at 6:35 pm

      Laurie, I experience grace through your photography and question prompts. A wonderful example of “thissness.”

      • Laurie Buchanan on September 17, 2014 at 6:37 pm

        Kathleen β€” You just made my day. THANK YOU!

    • shirleyhs on September 18, 2014 at 6:15 am

      Laurie, your comment made me chuckle with all those v-words. My Grandpa Hershey still spoke with a PA German accent and pronounced all his v’s as w’s. He talked about wim and wigor. It’s good to remember him through you.

      Which means THIS. You have been a channel of grace to me today. Thank you.

  3. Tracy Lee Karner on September 17, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    Beautiful! I’d love to be listening in on the poetry course. It sounds wonderful.

    Interesting that he brings in Dickinson and Whitman, who are neither modern nor contemporary. Is he laying the foundation to explore the Moderns and Contemporaries in light of their enormous and lasting influence on all American poetry?

    My THIS? Completing this long, difficult editing project, while not allowing it to overtake this day.

    • shirleyhs on September 18, 2014 at 6:33 am

      Tracy, I included a link, “I Dwell in Possibility” (above in orange) to the video from the course. I hope it works on your computer. It could be that it only works on mine because I am registered for the class. It only takes a minute or so to register, so you might want to join the class midstream.

      You are right about Dickinson and Whitman. They begin the course because Filreis sees them as proto-moderns. Then he intentionally contrasts them with each other, so that the rest of poetry can be viewed as being Dickinsonian or Whitmanian.

      I’m thinking of you now, Tracy, as you begin a new day. May THIS editing project go at just the right speed for you today and may you have clarity as you dwell in the text.

  4. Kathleen Friesen on September 17, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    Like Laurie, I like your sentence, “My job right now is to dwell in possibilities.” For me, this is where faith begins; at the edge of possibilities are uncertainties. As David Whyte says, “(There are) questions that have no right to go away.”

    Thank you, Shirley, for inviting us along as you experience and explore the possibilities and live into the questions.


    • Kathleen Friesen on September 17, 2014 at 6:42 pm

      And, my “THIS:” working to be present now, not seeking the future or wishing for times past … my spiritual discipline is contemplative photography.


    • shirleyhs on September 18, 2014 at 6:20 am

      Kathleen, I love that you responded to Laurie with affirmation for her THIS. I hope that Laurie gets to see some of your beautiful contemplative photos. You both have graced my life so much, mostly through this medium of blogging and social media, but also in person. The best!

      I have found that simply saying the word “this” from moment to moment, sometimes aloud, sometimes silently, has helped me stay focused. Blessings on your this THIS day.

  5. Joan on September 17, 2014 at 8:25 pm

    “I dwell in possibility” every day when I sit down to rework my memoir. Thanks for sharing this, Shirley!!

    • shirleyhs on September 18, 2014 at 6:36 am

      Joan, I’m thinking of you, too, this morning. Such great crisp weather we are having in our lovely Valley. Hope your edits are just as crisp. And that THIS day brings you to a good place in your story.

  6. Marian Beaman on September 17, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    How well I remember the close reading of Updike’s Rabbit, Run in grad school. It was close, but not particularly collaborative as I see in your class, a pedagogy I value. I do have the tiny word “up” circled in the copy I read back then. “This” way to “up”?

    The hot air balloon is the perfect image for exploring possibilities and picturing my THIS: Summoning the energy to be UP for the challenge of each new day.

    • shirleyhs on September 18, 2014 at 6:41 am

      Close reading can be applied outside the text as well as inside it! So many benefits of a life lived in school. πŸ™‚

      You would enjoy the whole stream of videos the Professor Filreis includes on pedagogy. He explains his own style and brings in teachers at other levels to share how they teach the poems. Just amazing resources at this site.

      Hope THIS day takes you UP higher than you have imagined.

  7. Tina Fariss Barbour on September 17, 2014 at 9:28 pm

    I loved this post, Shirley, and am going to be coming back to it to fully take it in. I love THIS–This moment is the only one we have, this experience is all there is in this moment. Mindfulness indeed!

    I also love the idea of dwelling in possibilities. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to remember that there ARE possibilities. You know some of the struggles I have and how big the loss of possibilities can seem.

    The INFJ (me) doesn’t have an easy time of waiting either. πŸ™‚

  8. Richard Gilbert on September 17, 2014 at 9:59 pm

    You hit it out of the ballpark with THIS one, Shirley. Should you quit blogging? Not when you can do this, I say. So interesting that you are immersed in poetry. Me tooβ€”I recently signed up for an online poetry-writing class, though I dropped it because I am unbelievably buried in grading. The books, I kept.

    • shirleyhs on September 19, 2014 at 8:01 am

      Richard, I’m not sure what happened to the response I thought I made to you. But here goes with a second THIS. πŸ˜‰ How can there be too many? πŸ™‚

      It must be very hard to do what you do — teach writing all day, participate in special events on campus and off as a president’s spouse, blog, and continue your own writing for publication. Plus who knows what else? You do it all with grace as far as I can tell. Your latest review on your blog, of Michael Perry’s memoir 485, is a shining example. I hope you get a few new readers from this location.

  9. shirleyhs on September 18, 2014 at 6:48 am

    Thanks for making me smile, Tina. It’s that J that makes us impatient with waiting.

    Perhaps those who struggle most to stay in the moment and to see Possibilities are the very ones who can teach the rest of us to transform the word “dwell.” As Filreis pointed out in the close reading he and the class did of the poem, “to dwell” can be a negative word if it connotes obsession but a positive one when it means almost the opposite, to relax into a place of being.

    That is your story, Tina. The transformation you are making THIS day.

  10. Vi Dutcher on September 19, 2014 at 7:43 am

    This is the most significant and grounding piece I have read in a long time. For me, it is for a time such as this.

  11. shirleyhs on September 19, 2014 at 8:04 am

    Vi, I’m so glad these words reached you in your time of grief and transition into a new world. The deep resources you have within yourself of all the words and people you have loved will emerge in a great burst of creativity when the time is right. I know THIS with heart, mind, and soul.

  12. Elfrieda Schroeder on September 19, 2014 at 10:21 am

    Shirley, don’t stop blogging, you are such an inspiration to me. The words “the mission for preparing for death and helping others do the same” struck a chord with me. I think I have been doing that subconsciously. I love this time of my life and am in good health, but realistically speaking I am much closer to the other side now, and my thoughts go there at times. Thanks for putting it into words for me!

    • shirleyhs on September 19, 2014 at 10:28 am

      Thanks, Elfrieda. These words touch me. I think many people older than 50, feel this tug to the “other side” and look at each day, each hour, and each word with new bittersweet appreciation. Here’s another blog post to inspire you from a writing coach I recommend:

  13. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on September 19, 2014 at 8:30 pm

    Give us THIS day our daily bread….thanks for the wonderful nourishment you’ve shared here, Shirley.

    • shirleyhs on September 21, 2014 at 6:18 am

      That’s a perfect application of the concept, Dolores! Thanks for the reminder. This is a word of power and glory.

  14. Elaine Mansfield on September 25, 2014 at 9:24 pm

    I imagine hands outstretched to life with Emily Dickinson’s “This.” Her poem is an old favorite. I felt myself dwelling in possibilities for so many years. Now I focus on the work it takes to midwife a book. I will have a time of open possibility again.

    I’m grateful to be part of your This. Yes, please keep writing your song of self.

    • shirleyhs on September 26, 2014 at 8:30 pm

      Thank you so much for these graceful, gracious, words, Elaine. Your book just arrived in my mailbox today. I won’t be able to get to it right away, but I hope to do so when I return from my trips to Pennsylvania and Michigan.

      Sending you outstretched hands to life as you launch your book and engage with readers. THIS is sacred work.

      • Elaine Mansfield on September 26, 2014 at 10:02 pm

        Thank you, Shirley. The book seems to pull people in, so don’t read the first page if you have to wait. I’m grateful you plan to read it sometime.

Leave a Comment