Spiritual Teaching in a Sacred Secular Classroom

All this is true, more or less.

Teachers are consigned to a certain type of purgatory.  Not hell, mind you.  It is not punishment.  Just a stage where you work through things.  While the each generation of people moves on into the adult world, only reminiscing of their school days in hazy shadows or half-remembered dreams, teachers— being the conduit of ideas for the next generation—relive their own educational experiences every time they discover some slight comparison in their own classroom.  Over and over and over.  Call it the eternal recurrence of education, I suppose.

The value to this phenomenon—if there is one—is that we have the opportunity to re-evaluate what we are taught, as opposed to letting it settle deep into our the recesses of our mind, background noise for our beliefs, forming our conscious opinions and reactions unconsciously.  Unexamined, the lessons of the past take root and help define us—for good or for ill.  Reviewing what we are taught by the experiencing of re-teaching it, or questioning its validity, places us squarely in the stream of time, hopefully a check against becoming stagnant.

But the moment it happens is like an eerie déjà vu’.  You’re bopping along, teaching your ass off one day and you know the lesson you are teaching, the material you are covering.  Except once you were the student.  Now you are the teacher.  The paradoxes this switch creates can be unnerving.

I found myself in one of these pretzels the other day.  It’s Quarter 2 in philosophy class, so it’s time to study religion. For a solid month and a half, it is an ongoing discussion of God’s existence, the ongoing battle of faith and reason, arguments and justifications of faith, and the variety of religious experiences—common and absurd—around the world. I often privately joke that those joke-ass politicians and preachers who lament the lack of God in schools should stop by my room during this time, as there is probably more talk of God in that room than almost anywhere in public schools.

But Thursday might have been the icing on the unleavened bread.  It started before the first bell of school. One of my English students sheepishly brought me a Ouija board.  His girlfriend was presenting a project on Spiritualism: she wanted to use it as a prop, but she didn’t want to endure the spiritual shade she would likely receive for toting it around school for two periods.  Could he just drop it off?  Sure.  It seems that her suspicions were right, as I got a bit of a sacred stink-eye from students and staff alike just for having it next to me.  I put it atop a bookcase in my room and thought little of it until the class arrived a few hours later.

Three hours later came philosophy. A project on Jediism.  Spiritualism project was next, but the connection to the spirit world was broken as the lunch bell rang.  A few of my students asked if they could take the Ouija board to the library and play.  I flinched.

“Just don’t tell anyone I sent you.  The last thing I need is the reputation as the Public School philosophy teacher who sent his kids to contact the devil in the library.”

My fear comes from a fairly well-founded place.  As a young child I remember frequently going to church youth camps and meetings.  The exact details are fairly sketchy, but I remember spending a fair amount of time…Sunday school, Summer Camp, Saturday seminars…in organized religious-based youth meetings.  Lots of teaching from a “Biblical World View” goes on in these places.  And perhaps what I remember most about these meetings are the warnings about the trappings of the secular world, the kind of things we should be wary of to be “In the World and not of it.”  They never approached the level of “Hell House” for shtick, but the message was clear: the secular world is full of spiritual pitfalls.  It’s bits and pieces of memory, really, but public school was often characterized as an obstacle course of temptation to lead the soul astray, so much that parents often experienced guilt for sending their students to be taught in that den of thieves–the public school classroom.  I remember hearing that Led Zeppelin snuck Satanic messages into “Stairway to Heaven”–the speaker’s prom song.  I remember hearing that science and history might try to sway you against the way the Earth was really  created.  And I definitely remember picking up somewhere that messing around with Occult material like Dungeons and Dragons and Ouija boards was basically inviting the devil into your soul, ensuring you a one-way ticket to the dark side.  And not the cool one with the Death Star.  The one with eternal fire where you have to perpetually watch crappy after-school specials with an incompetent teacher, where you can have only one salad dressing for all eternity,  where you are consigned to infinite Cleveland Browns fandom.

 

And if I’m to believe what God’s Not Dead claims, there’s nothing more godless than a philosophy teacher who challenges religious arguments as part of his curriculum.  I could hear the angry, uninformed script letters from Ralph Reed and the AFA basically writing themselves.  So after lunch, when the students returned and actually used the board in their project—admittedly with a condescending and sarcastic attitude to the Hasbro product’s mystical powers—I can’t say that it didn’t unnerve me a bit.

But the project concluded.  On to the main lesson.  One I had spent quite some time mulling over.  We were at an intersection in class where the infinity of ideas came against the finite nature of class time.  Buber may have argued that this is how we understand God, but for me it was where I tried to synthesize the ideas of nihilism and religious existentialism in the course of about 50 minutes.

“Vanity of vanities.  All is vanity.”  If there is a more succinct nihilistic sentiment, I can’t recall it.  Solomon, who the Judeo-Christian tradition claims as “the wisest man alive,  searching for meaning in the meaningless world, finds that all of human endeavor was pointless, that nature would follow its random course with or without him, and he would eventually die, his life the proverbial dust in the wind, dude.  My students felt the weight of these notions, but none of my students could place the source.

“Nobody knows where this comes from?  None of you?

Crickets.  Silence.  The ineffable void.

“Bunch of damn heathens,” I mockingly scorned them.  “Book of Ecclesiastes. Most beautiful book in the Bible.”  They were duly amazed that the Holy Book of two major world religions grappled with the nihilistic sentiment, when nihilism seems to strike at the very heart of faith.  Although I had been raised religiously, I didn’t find Ecclesiastes until I was in college, already beginning the wane of my church attendance.  It spoke to a similar creeping dread in me, spoke to me like few parts of the Bible ever have; I both revere its sentiments and question its conclusions to this day.  The creeping dread of nihilism, I often tell my students, is a problem we all face from time to time.

Image result for abraham killing isaac

We discussed why people feel this way, and how religion addresses this fear of being nothingness.  I related Kierkegaard’s epiphany—that all true connections with the divine are marked by absurdism and ineffable paradox and should be approached with laughter—by narrating the story of Abraham and then moved to the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments—spending 40 days in the mountains, the revolt of the Israelites, the smashing of the tablets and the bitter water-as as an example of the rocky mystical beginnings that blossomed into established religions.  They were rapt, like six-year-olds in Sunday School.  Many admitted they didn’t know any stories from the Bible. They were hooked on these tales I had taken for granted, the same stories I had heard over and over in my primary education.

Image result for moses smashing the tablets of the law rembrandtHere’s where the paradox begins to strike me.  If I were to go back to lessons of those youth conference days as a public school teacher who allowed a Ouija board and a faux-séance as part of a project, I would be a pariah, the very archetype of all that is most wrong in Public Schools.  I would be the epitome of the darkness they fight.  If, on the other hand, I were the Public School teacher who made the kids—many of whom had never read the Bible—read KJV OT followed by laying down some primary Sunday School stories, I might be something of a hero to the flock, the lone light shining in the darkness.  Pat Robertson might even say some nice words about me right after Harry Potter went off, right before condemning “the gays.”

Of course, neither of these is true.  Philosophy and education in my classroom are all about finding the position a student is in and giving them a nudge, ever so slightly, so that they can grow.  I certainly have my beliefs about the world, and I could never extract those beliefs from who I am even if I wanted to. But in the classroom, it is not the ego nor the agenda of the teacher that should matter.  My job is to shine some light on the path they tread.  Their job is to figure out themselves and their path in the world.  I do my work and step back.  We are there to reveal, elucidate, inspire.  We are not there to indoctrinate.

Thursday dwindled to an end. But the paradox I discovered in myself and my teaching? I can barely describe or speak of, which is probably why I tried to take a few thousand words to do so.  How bizarre that the kid from those youth conferences would grow into the teacher who both met and defied those lessons within one class period.  How absurd.  I found myself laughing as I locked the door on my sacred space for the day.

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The Sylvan Sanctuary

A church owns some land in my neighborhood.

It’s a small, wooded plot in otherwise urban space, maybe as much as ten acres.  It is bounded by a four-lane road, a cul-de-sac, where a neighbor pounds out open-garage-door drum solos on a Friday night, and a parking lot—for a church that already exists.

It’s nothing impressive, really.  Not enough to really “get away from it all.”  It’s hilly and there’s a big sewer entry manhole and exhaust pipe stuck in the middle of it—the intersection of a few lightly trodden trails that criss-cross the vast expanse of the glen.

But these trails are less than a five minute walk from my house, and all told create about a mile of total walking in the woods.  Perhaps it is a paucity compared to the great trails of the world.  It is no Inca Trail.  It can’t contend with the Tour du Mont Blanc.  But on a fall Friday, it was the perfect antidote—the perfect pocket of sunlight in the dusk hours to take the dogs for a nature walk.

When we first moved into our neighborhood almost a decade ago, our whole street was trees, with only a few houses.  It was certainly more wild then.  Hawks and Owls filled the skies over my backyard.  I could walk the dogs through winding trails, where I would dream of carving a legit mountain bike track.  But all was not sylvan utopia.  On more than one occasion, the urban seclusion of a wooded cul-de-sac drew those who wished to hide their activities from public view.  On multiple occasions, I came off the greenway to find teenagers exploring their new-found sexuality or thieves exploring their new-found cars.  The police said, “There are places like this all over the city, and people know where to find them.”

But then more and more lots were cleared…no doubt funded by our house purchase.  More and more houses appeared.  More and more people moved in.  Lots of families.  Lots of kids.  For better or for worse, the seclusion of the woods gave way to the bustle of a neighborhood.

The kids play football in our front yard.  It’s the largest, flattest open space on the street.  We don’t mind.  We’ve sent some ground rules, and they’re generally nice kids.  One of them comes up to me last week.  Morosely, he informs me that the two wooded lots next to his house have “For Sale” signs.  “They’re going to cut down the trees,” he says.  “And that’s going to hurt the planet.”

I remembered when we struggled against this incursion in our neighborhood.  For Sale signs mysteriously found their way into the nearby woods.  But after years of watching the inevitable, I shrug and channel an old man somewhere on his porch.

“Yup.  Gonna happen.  Back when we first moved to these here parts, there were trees far as the eye could see.”

I’m not trying to burst his enthusiasm.  He’s young, and two lots of wooded area is a vast forest for a child.  When I grew up out in the sticks, there were acres and creeks and deer and snakes that misled me to the true faith of being lost in a vast wilderness, mine for the exploration.  A place to wander—body, mind and soul—through downed trees and crunchy leaves.

These days, I usually drive to my wild spaces—often hours away—to walk in the woods.  The child is, of course, bound by the physical limits of transportation.  But soon, he will mature enough to cross the street to the greenway, a strip of social asphalt snaking beside a creek through the trees.  Within a mile’s journey, he will be able to reach the civilizing forces of three Christian churches and a Hindu temple on its meandering paths.  There he can explore the ancient texts and evolving traditions of finding the spiritual, the transcendent.

But as for the church who owns the lot at the end of my street, the lot adjacent to an already existing church, a church with bi-lingual services, I hope they really enjoy the lot they purchased.  I kind of hope they are a small congregation, small enough that I can meet them on the trails sometime, small enough that an informal, unmarked system of trails is sufficient for their spiritual contemplation.  Otherwise, they’ll probably need books to sing songs, then cabinets to hold those books.  Some members might need stairs or ramps.  Soon, they will need more organizing seating, as the random assortment of dead logs will be insufficient for their gathering needs.  They may need a sound system to reach the masses, and they’ll probably level the land so it will be easy for everyone to see everyone as they congregate.  Then they might decide they need some loud bells to announce their service for all the neighborhood to hear, which if successful will mean their further expansion.

That will probably mean a parking lot.

And—to put it selfishly—that will be the end of the small patch of unmarked trails at the end of the street.  It’s beyond my control.  This small, humble wood, my spot of simple contemplation on a Friday afternoon, where for a brief half an hour I can wander aimlessly with my head in the trees while Juno and Atticus smell the smells and feel more like the wild beasts they believe they are, will be no more on this Earth.  I will find other spots, though not as easily.  The kids in my neighborhood probably won’t be that lucky.  It’s a morose thought, kid, so enjoy those beautiful afternoons watching the leaves trickle down as you peer through the twilight to make sure you’re still on the trail.  And when you do, feel free to hold on the perhaps-naïve hope that the church will want nothing more than to preserve a quiet place where they can come and seek the voice of God.

Not with a splash but with a whimper…

Friday—as mornings go—got off to a funky start.  Perhaps it was the music—disruption of my normal morning NPR diet.  “Jungle Boogie” blaring as I pulled into the parking lot.  Deltron filling my head as I climbed the stairs.  So I popped on YouTube and found this gem, blasted for all my hall to hear.

This set the gait for the day, and by third period, I found myself in a common paradoxical place in my teaching: crushing it on the intellectual side—moving between explaining ineffable truths, Platonic Forms, and argumentative structure—while ignorning basic mundane tasks like putting an empty cup under the Keurig where I’ve just turned on the hot water.  My brain does this, getting ahead of my body, out of sync with the simple tasks. Luckily, no physical mess was made, but my brain was chaotic. I was glad I had a hike on the horizon for tomorrow, an activity that always seems to align my balance

2:15 hits and I’m loading my backpack.  On my desk—a small book of Zen koans, picked up in a dusty philosophy section of some book store in the UK last summer and lost in the stream of life until I found it in my truck that morning.  Strange it should happen that way.  It looked the perfect size to fit in my hiking pack, so I grabbed it and hit the weekend in a furious blaze.

Koans—funny little Buddhist stories that make very little sense.  In many ways, it seems they are meant to prompt imbalance,  to create tension in the mind, disrupting the normalcy and complacency one finds in endeavors sacred or profane,  whether making teaching triumphantly or  seeking “the gateless gate.”

Like this:

A monk asked Ummon “What is Buddha?”  Ummon answered “Dried Dung.”

Lightning flashed,

Sparks shower.

In one blink of your eyes

You have missed seeing.

Not exactly a gripping read, but like I said, it fit in the top pocket of my trusty green backpack.  By 8, I meet my homie in Mt. Holly for breakfast.  Grub up and hit the road to walk many miles among the trees.  Soothe my soul.  I hold the door for an older gentleman, a life lived full, no doubt, but now hobbled with age.  I keep swearing to myself that I want to be able to hike until the day I die; I’ve come to close in the past to never having this chance again.  But try as I might, I watch him hobble and know it will still be out of my control in the end, that the frailty of the flesh may inevitably make this the path on which I am going.  Still, I’ve sworn to my small tribe to keep this ritual—long hikes with friends—and forestall the inevitable as long as possible.

Perhaps it’s a treacherous hope, destined for disappointment, but not as treacherous as the trail this morning.  The bands of Hurricane Irma swept through earlier in the week.  Not only is the river a churning maelstrom, but the trail itself reveals itself in abundant fungus predicting slippery rock after slippery rock: at times each step is its own new challenge, a new threat to balance.  Linville Gorge trails are by nature technical and windy as they descend into the belly of the beast, but the battering of the storm has added a new layer of danger to our trek.  No land speed records to be set today.  The trail meets the river again.

We find a tree that the swirling storm has uprooted, blowing out a ordinarily gnarly trail into a nearly impassible field of unstable boulders and terrain above our heads.  In chaotic winds and furious water, the tree met it’s end, disrupting the path as it fell.  The dogs whimper, but we prop them to higher ground before grabbing eye level roots to pull ourself back on the trail.  Soon, we find the first break, a swimming hole at the bottom of a waterfall.

The climb to the bottom is more slick than ever, and we have to crab-crawl to the water to make sure we don’t fall.  As I change and nudge toward the edge of today’s first baptism, I feel the chill of fall in the air.  The water is always cold, but there comes a time when the air’s chill makes swimming in the river a much more dangerous proposition.  The cold will always shock you, but if the air refuses to warm you up, the results can be devastating.  I ponder this as I pick the best spot to jump in—which jump will be the last jump?  I leap.  The cold crushes me and I gulp water.  The current is strong and begins to push me away from the falls, away from the cliffs on the other side where I want to climb.  I regain may bearings and make my way to the ledge next to the falls.  The water is in furious roar, and what was a simple jump earlier this summer now threatens to push me against rocks.  I take more time than usual to consider my safety, but leap twice as hard off the dry rock and fight the current back to shore. You 

Dry again, we make our way on the most demanding part of the trail—between the swimming hole and the Cabin Trail intersection.  It is mostly all rock, and with the humidity in the air and the wetness of the soil, each step over and down seems a carefully measured one.  “Good thing we went hiking today,” Doug says.  “You know the rapture’s coming next weekend.”  Ah yes, another day for the apocalypse.  We chuckle.  We wonder why people love these stories. We break into dialogue. Doug points out that prophecy is open-ended and can be applied to any time period.  I retort that having prophecy gives meaning to a world constantly in chaos and flux, make it easier to experience.  It seems like we’re getting somewhere.  My mind is moving fast while my body moves on auto-pilot.

Snake.  Copper head.  Medium-sized.  Sunning himself on the one dry rock.  For whatever reason, the dogs missed it, but it sees us, and shakes his tail in anticipation.  It arrests our exploration into eschatology and re-orients us to the step-by-step of the trail.   Doug flicks him off the trail with a trekking pole, and we keep picking our way over the slippery rocks.

Soon the trail evens out.  Just past the intersection marker, we can see Babel Tower in the distance, and soon we here the incessant babble from beneath us at what is perhaps the most famous swimming hole on the West Rim.  We slide to the bottom, and there are about twenty people and five dogs spread across the rocks below.  We agree to be patient, tie up the dogs, spread a hammock.  A good time for a snack and a book.

The waterfall pours into a wide pool below rounded cliffs.  It’s not difficult to imagine that at one point—perhaps millions of years ago—the water whipped through this part of the Gorge and shaped these rocks in a torrential eddy.  For this place in geological history, it is a place where people stop, picnic, swim, photograph, slide down the waterfall and jump at least forty feet off the cliffs into the pool below.  We are content to watch this all.  A good time for some peaceful Zen comfort, no?

The koans seem to follow some pattern, a conversation where a penitent asks the monk a question and receives an answer that—on the surface—has, at best, a contradictory relation to the question, if any relation at all.

Q:  What is the nature of the Buddha?

A: This flax weighs 3 pounds.

It seems that so much of these conversations are wrapped up in either the futility of knowing or the futility of searching.  People get so wrapped up in searching for the Buddha, looking for truth, or verifying that their life has had significance, has been successful, or that they have bested the anxiety of death and emptiness.  Paradoxically, it seems the more you seek getting too wrapped up in looking for the Buddha, the more it detracts from a true path.  Huxley argues similarly in The Perenial Philosophy that in many religions, words, stories, and ritual become the focus of the devotee—lost in questions and debate—and they become distracted from the path itself.  And yet, how can one express this in words?  In one koan, the Buddha simply remains silent and the penitent—a philosopher—feels he has received his answer.

Very confusing.  But the motion of the sun and people stirs my thoughts from that particular rabbit hole.  Some of the swimmers are leaving, the sun is getting low enough that if I don’t jump in the water soon, it will make no sense to do so today.  I read one more quick one to carry with me to the water. A monk promises another monk on his death bed to show him the way of “no coming and no going.”  Then I slip on my trunks, next to a dead stump that has flourished with fungus in the moisture of the storm.

I jump off the short ledge, and the current carries me.  I’ve done this before—no big deal—and move toward an eddy on the far shore and climb up the cliff.  I’ve never been up this far, but saw enough people jump today to pique my interest.  I come out to the ledge.  It doesn’t look that bad: lots of flat space.

“No. Go down further,” yells one of the remaining campers.  I go back over the trees and find where he was pointing.  I have to hold onto a tree to lower myself onto a small step, perhaps twice as wide as my shoulders, perhaps two feet out into the air, saturated with treacherous, mossy moisture.

I think of every rock I’ve slipped on today, every time I’ve lost my balance, feeding the unsteadiness of my legs.  I’m worry I will slip one last, fatal time and consider the worst possible scenario from atop this ledge.  This is the way the world ends.  I stand to jump, but I don’t.  I know I’m going to, but I lack the courage to do it at first.  I look down.  Bad choice.  All the rocks I could hit.  I know I will jump, but now all thought has left me.  I’m empty.  I feel the fear extend to my limbs.  I sit down to calm myself before the jump.  It doesn’t work.  Soon the fear overwhelms me, out of conscious control.  My senses began to bend.  The rock in front, the cavernous bowl marked by thousands of years of rushing water, begins to bend and swirl with the sound of the water.  Is this vertigo?  Will I black out over the ledge? Will I be lost in the dark and swift current of time?   Just typing this brings a tinge of that familiar to my fingertips.  It is a jumpy anxiety—an unnamed twirl of excitement and dread.

Finally, I spring from my crouched position.  Down, down, down forever into the dark womb of the water.  The current carries me, and I swim for the near shore.  I’ve caught my breath, but the lights that flickerd on atop the rock are still burning at all of my nerve endings.

Often, a jump in the mountain water invigorates me, but this has ignited a new and caustic fire that smolders whimperingly in every millimeter of my neural pathways, past the pont of getting dry, past re-packing my pack and rejoining the trail, up the ascent out of the belly of the Gorge.  This babble, this running narrative, burns away.  In the silence the answer is heard, and I walk away, step by trudging step.

 

Down the Highways of the Old Confederacy

I am not from The South.  I have lived here all of my adult life, but I have always had difficulty considering myself a Southerner.  I was reminded of it early and often when I moved to North Carolina, no matter how many times I reminded the kids on the cheese wagon that we Bostonians hated the Yankees, too.  But even as an adult who has lived three-quarters of his life below the Mason-Dixon, I often find myself an outsider in this culture.

And yet, I know it fairly well, even if I don’t get it.  I’ve traveled its back roads, climbed its mountains, sang in its churches, drank its sweet tea and ate its grits, paddled its rivers to gain an intimate knowledge.  Like many of us here, I take the same paths over and over and over again, a regression I found recently as Nic and I pointed the Prius in a southwestardly direction to see her family just across the Louisiana border in Beaumont, Texas.

For many who do not know or are not familiar with the south, the perception can be one of abject misery and backwardness, a point driven home by a Wisconsan at AP Training who lamented the strangeness of our national politics and then pointedly said, “but I guess you’re use to this, being from North Carolina.”  And as we make the travel from 85-65-10—through the “Deep South”—we pass through cities that can be laden with heavy American history.  Sherman’s march through Atlanta.  The Montgomery to Selma march.  Mississippi Burning.  Hurricane Katrina rips through New Orleans.  But for us, there are very personal memories on this path raised on this path and new memories created every trip.  There’s the impromptu high school parade at the Jonesboro exit.  Our walking tour of the Auburn campus.  The worst hotel sleep ever in Mobile. Strolling the beaches in Gulfport and Biloxi.  Walking through the French Quarter.  Chicken on the Bayou.  A speed trap that caught me in Vinton.

As we enter Texas, the speed limit raises and we enter narrow construction lanes.  We stop at a What-a-Burger somewhere between Orange and Vidor, then cruise all the way to Beaumont.  From there, it’s a week of tacos, board games, and laughter.  I know all the streets in my in-law’s hood from running over the years, and I’m starting to remember how to get to the Starbucks and the gym without having to use a GPS.  This paths are well worn indeed.

But the history of this town is obscure to me.  It’s a city of over 100,000 people, which makes it large and modern in comparison to the many towns of fewer than 10,000 that surround it.   Beaumont, it seems, has a relatively high murder rate for its size in Texas.  My in-laws’ church in the heart of the city recently participated in a successful gun buy-back where they received many weapons but–just as importantly–many threats from the people in the city.  The following Sunday, community leaders sat in a panel discussion about potential solutions to murder with the BBC filming for documentary purposes.    The preacher spoke euphemistically a few times about “the sins of our fathers.”  I’m not sure I know exactly what the sins are, but judging from the panel discussion, it seems that—like a lot of Southern cities—Beaumont probably has some racial skeletons in its closet, skeletons, that—like a lot of cities in this country, including Charlotte—still cause social problems today in the correlation of race and poverty.  This church is attempting to at least bridge that gap, to take steps to solve what is often a heated, uncomfortable issue by reducing the violence that plagues the city.

It’s hot in Texas, and I spend a lot of time inside reading when I’m there.  Perhaps serendipitously the thread of race relations wove through much of what I remember reading.  There’s this essay in one of my favorite publications about he virtues of Tarrantino’s Django Unchained.  The author compares how Germany and America use art to portray and deal with our relative racists and genocidal pasts.  He argues that unlike Django, most American films that deal with race paint the racists as unrelatable villains as opposed to everyday people, minimize the actual violence and pain caused, and look to a hopeful future, as if this is all behind us.  That night, we watch The Help on TV.

The second read was Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, a 2016 Man Booker award winner.  For me, it’s often refreshing to read a book without having to worry about how I would teach it.  The book satirizes the state and history of race relations in this country in a way that has me cackling.  Like most good works of satire, it is both irreverent and poingant.  I know lots of people I want to convince to read it just so we can talk about it.

If this book left me in stiches, the third reading regarding race left me with dread.  It was a brief article on my favorite left-leaning political blog, announcing that Charlottesville had voted to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park (once Lee park, but changed).  The move mirrors such efforts in other southern cities to remove symbols of the South’s confederate past, from the removal of the Battle Flag over the SC state house after the Mother Emmanuel AME Zion shooting in 2015 to the recent effort remove Confederate monuments in New Orleans.  The rationale seems to be that removing these symbols of the racist past are necessary for us to move forward.  I thought about Beatty’s narrator, who would likely argue that removing the statues won’t end racism any more than having a black president did.

The trend to remove these monuments has gained momentum.  But Southerners are fighting back.  The monuments in New Orleans had to be removed under the cover of night with police protection.   In all of these cases, the removal has met with charges of disrespecting Southern Heritage, memes quoting George Orwell, and the prideful opposition of southerners regardless of their state.  A slight in New Orleans or Charlotteseville is slight across Dixie, it seems. So in Charlottesville, a Southern university town that—like my beloved Chapel Hill, likely believes it is above the dirty past of the rest of the South–a  “Unite the Right” rally had been planned to protest the removal of the statue.

I cringed.  This wouldn’t end well, but I had no idea how explosive a situation it would become.

By Tuesday, we headed home, mapping a different route through Dixie, heading north to Little Rock.  Randy, who has travelled these roads all his life, ticked off the names of the small towns through which we would pass: Lumberton, Kirbyville, Jasper, San Augustine, Carthage, Marshall, and finally to Texarkana. Small town after small town where a NC tag and  a Prius surely made us seem like outsiders, but not so much that we needed to worry if we stayed under the speed limit and I kept my hair tucked under my hat.  Lucky us. How privileged.  Soon we were in Little Rock.

I had hoped through our new route through the old confederacy we would see the markers of history.  Unfortunately, time, traffic, and Little Rock’s tenuous relationship with our GPS kept us from Little Rock Central High School.  As a teacher, I inherently see education as a tool to social progress.  So, it’s odd to think of a school as a site of one of the most regressive battles of the Civil Rights Era.  Here, Governor Orville Faubus, pandering to his white supremacist base, refused to comply with the Supreme Court and integrate schools.    Eisenhour tried to talk him into changning his mind, but eventually had to bring in the National Guard to protect high school students from an angry mob of “ordinary” white people. Watching the “respectable” white people is revolting.  It seems so hopelessly out of time, and yet even in Charlotte, once a national model of integrated schools, educational disparity at the nexus of class and race persists and reform often meets a genteel, polite resistance.

 

 

Sadly, we only have time for a walk in the park, where the dogs frolic in the fountain, and lunch at Stickyz Chicken (which is lets us put our dogs on the patio, and has a great space). Instead of the high school, we go to the beautiful, renovated waterfront district, where bands can play and public art brackets public water parks where we see black and white children playing.  Every thing seems so peaceful, so newly renovated, the shadows of the past paved over in brick, shiny glass, and sculpture.

We need to get to Memphis, which is another 2 ½ hours east.  Memphis sits on the eastern bank of the Mississippi.  Named after an ancient Egyptian city, Memphis greets us with a gaudy, mirrored pyramid emblazoned with the Bass Pro Shops logo to commemorate the city’s etymological heritage.  We turn right off the interstate as soon as we get into the city, the GPS  leads us to one of the most unlikely of historical markers—The Lorraine Motel.

You’ve seen the pictures.  In 1968, Dr. King had come to Memphis to help the working class, to march with striking sanitation workers.  The night before, his speech suggested he was aware of his own impending demise.  The next morning, an assassin’s bullet pierced the Memphis sky and struck King.  Today, few citizens are venerated in American history as Dr. King.  The Wall Street Journal claims that his “I Have a Dream” speech magically ended all racism in America.  Talk about your out-of-touch costal elites.  But here, a somber reminder: the motel, which fell into disrepair in the early 80s has become the foundation for the National Civil Rights Museum, which also includes the boarding house where the bullet originated, the whole moment of King’s death captured in the eerie trajectory of a few hundred yards of city block.

I’ve been to many awe inspiring places: the Grand Canyon, Machu Picchu, Stonehenge.  But I am overwhelmed in a tone I have never known.  The nexus of so many intersecting strands.  A clash of ideals.  A true crossroads of our nation.  The courage and the fear inspired in one man’s actions brought to a mighty head in his assasination by motivations obvious, yet still myriad and dark.  Now this motel sits somewhat anachronistically in what is clearly an effort for a revitalized Memphis, with newly painted signs, down the road from a hotel honoring the history of blues—the very heart of American music, borne painfully in slave culture, once reviled by the clergy as the Devil’s Music—a few blocks from Beale Street, a few more from a gleaming NBA arena that the city has just apporoved for $1.7 million in renevations an a state-of-the-art AAA baseball stadium.

We have one more place to see in Memphis, but the GPS gets us lost again.  Around the corner from the Lorraine, we see a middle-aged African American woman, alone at a fold-out card table with signs and brouchures protesting the construction of the Civil Rights Museum. I slow down enough to see what seems on the surface a contradictory argument—that the King memorial is destroying the very people he fought for.  But as the GPS leads me through Memphis, we see the cracked streets, the shanty houses, an elementary school that has been boarded up in disuse.  The GPS, in trying to find Sun Studios, keeps trying to take me through Foote Park, which is currently surrounded by construction fence guarding the concrete rubble of what once was.  Like Charlotte, Memphis is a mid-level city trying to grow, and that means sometimes it is clearing out the “the undesirable” for the new and gleaming.  Frustarted, we decided to head to the hotel on a brand new 240, but finally find Sun, where Elvis, Cash, and many others got their start.  It’s now a museum to iconic musicians who Nicole decided, after watching Walk the Line for the first time a few weeks ago, were kind of jerks.  Regardless, it remains a testament to the fact that the American South, perhaps because of its pain and suffering, is the fertile soil in which so much of our music began to blossom.

The next day takes us through Nashville, where we briefly stop in Centennial Park, home to a full-sized replica of the Greek Parthenon, the home for Nashville’s art museum, stands across the green from a modern Southern temple–an SEC football stadium at Vanderbilt.  We have lunch and ice cream from the food trucks where a mom leaps back in front of me to ask the ice cream lady if the chocolate and peanut butter ice cream she just ordered for her kids has nuts in it.  I shake my head.  How can you choose nuts and think you won’t have live with them.

From there, we move further east, to a small town called Decatur, where family has done us the grand favor of loaning us their house for a few days.  We drive twisty roads through the mountains into what is truly the rural south.  “Towns” are few the further we get from the interstate, and soon we arrive to this small enclave (a town of around 1,500 people) punctuated by a Piggly Wiggly, three gas stations, and Italian/Mexican restaurant (which Nicole dubs “a crime against humanity”) and a few fast food joints.

The next day we explore.  The land is beautiful, surrounded by massive rivers that I long to kayak.  We stop at an isolated gas station where the clerk answers my questions about fishing and directs me to his goo ole boy buddy in the parking lot when I ask him the best place to put in and camp.  “Wherever you can find a place.” As we drive around, we begin discussing what it would be like to live out here.  Are you stuck or are you fortunate?  In many ways, the area embodies much of the virtue people extol in the south.  It’s simple, relaxed, a contrast to the fast-paced urban, modern life.  Lots of time for reading, playing music, fishing, and thinking.

We point the car home on Friday.  I convince Nicole to let me take the scenic route over the Cherehola Skyway, a winding mountain road between Tellico Gap, TN and Robbinsville, NC.  It means going rural instead of interstate, through Athens (a booming town of 15,000 with a university a third the size of the high school where I teach), then Etowah, a winding road on which we count four Rebel Flags, one on the same porch as a New England Patriots flag.

I begin to think a lot about the people who live here and the flags they fly on their porch, flags that people defend with slogans like “heritage, not hate”, flags that proliferated after it was removed from the Columbia State House, flags that will stand along the Nazi swastika in Charlottesville.  I went to a high school where the flag was a common clothing accessory way before I could digest what that meant.  On the last day of school, kids with big trucks would attach huge battle flags and race up and down the street in front of the school.  I know the people who live in the rural south who bring buckets of vegetables to my mom’s house when their garden is abundant, who kindly give me directions about where I can find a dock for my kayak, who let me out of a speeding ticket with a warning because I know a little “aw shucks” routine.  I know people who fly the flag who have done me immesurable acts of kindness. I also know people who can be hostile to the wrong kind of outsider.  I want to believe as I drive through this beautiful country that none of these people would take their flags off their porch to use them as symbols of hate in Charlottesville.  But I also know that historical symbols and monuments accrue meaning by their use.  That one owner of the flag can’t escape the meaning that others ascribe to it. That any monument serves us best as a point to reflect where we are going, not just a reminder of where we’ve been.

But that wasn’t going to happen in Charlottesville.  There was not going to be a quiet contest of ideas.  The statue was coming down by order of the city council.  As a carpet-bagging yankee, it fills me with great ambivalence.  I know lots of my southern brothers and sisters who see this as destroying a past worth preserving.  But even as a child I had a hard time understanding the desire to venerate this history.  Certainly, the flood of outsiders escalating Charlotteville proved that racism is not endemic to the South,  but we can’t deny that the South has frequently been on the wrong side of moral history.  From slavery to Jim Crow to resisting the Civil Rights movement.    There is much about the South to celebrate.  But values that make the South a wonderful place to live—generous people, genuine music, amazing natural resources—are not embodied in a flag that has become a racist totem nor in statues  to men who died protecting the Confederacy and its economic model of violent, immoral human enslavement.

We didn’t drive through Charlottesville, but it came to us in our living room as soon as we returned home.  I’m not sure I really care whether or not a statue stays or goes, but I find the argument that we should preserve history to be somewhat hollow.  All monuments fail to tell the entire story, but these celebrate the valour of a defeated army.  On the other hand, making the destruction of these monuments the focus of racial reconciliation also seems superficial.  Sure, it is a powerful symbolic victory, but does little to do the work that we need to work for a more harmonious society. But harmony has always been hard in the South.  Part of the trick of the Jim Crow South and the birth of the Klan, according to several historians, was that the wealthy landowners convince poor whites to intensly hate the poor blacks so they would never realize that their economic interests would be better realized if they worked together.  That racial animus became the series of laws and “Sundown Towns” throughout the South, an animus even exploited by Nixon’s Southern strategy.   What has stood out the most for me, however, is that while otherwise well-intentioned people from the South have pitched a battle that has allowed White Supremacists, neo-nazi assholes, and the freaking Klan to come out of the woodwork in 2017. And once again, these groups begin to convince alienated white people that their path to Southern Shangrila lies in hating People of Color while claiming it’s about “heritage, not hate”.  But if Southerners really care about preserving our history, we better look it in the face.  Because we can’t just we want to preserve heritage and act like hate wasn’t a part of it all along. And if we can’t find a way to differentiate, to celebrate the South while doing the work to repair the sins of our fathers, to really make the South an amazing place for all the people who live here, then that rebel flag and those monuments will contine to have the taint of racism that those hoodless Klansmen put on them every time they show up to defend another statue.

Almost a year ago, my beloved city erupted into nights of protests and property damage after the police shot Keith Lamont Scott.  It seems like it is Charlottesville’s turn to go down this road.  Ironically, the actions of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville has only emboldened cities and colleges to remove these monuments.  And with citizens, politicians, and college students alike looking to right the wrongs of the past, it feels like we will continue to travel these roads for sometime.  As we do, it helps to remember that there are two pernicious lies that arise about race and the south–whether the monuments stay or go.  The first is the favorite of the white supremacist–that the past was glorious and valorous, and we need only return to it.  The second is the refuge of what King called “the white moderate” who prefers order over justice–that the past is in the past, that all our problems have been solved, and that every thing is cool if we just leave well enough alone.  It is perhaps as deadly a lie, as it catches us off guard when conflict erupts over unresolved issues.

In another week, I will return to my job of teaching young people how to interpret visual communication, parse rhetoric, seek truth, and perhaps most importantly, be a valuable member of a harmonious community.  As our trip through the Confederacy comes to a close, I realize that progress in the South is still to be made

The Tribe Stumbles on Unmarked Trails

It was an inauspicsious start.  I put my boots down on the railroad tie behind my truck.  Atticus promptly pissed on them.  I told him he was a bad dog, but I guess if he’s trying to spread his scent all over the woods, he wins for ingenuity.

We make our way down the Pine Gap Trail, the first trail on the West Rim of the Gorge that makes its way to the main Linville trail, looking to make it to Babel Tower and back in the afternoon. We are down at the water after twenty minutes of twisty trail.  Atticus jumps in the water and stares at me like “Yay! We made it!”  But someone’s already put their hammock up, and we have more miles to hike today.  He stares at me in disbelief, as if he can’t fathom why we would ever leave this perfect spot.

But leave, we do, and the trail climbs to the intersection of the Bynum Bluff trail.  It’s and odd intersection, and I accidentally head down a side trail that heads for the river.  I even pass an older couple who have stopped to evaluate the map, but I somehow miss seeing that omen and keep pushing ahead.  I’m worried about the bend in the trail that offers a straight drop over the cliff, worried that Atticus will make haste over that edge.  But he and Juno are hiking methodically, patiently.  And soon we are at the river, walking up on three other perfect spots–glorious campsites, filed away for future use.

I know I have missed the main trail, but it doesn’t concern me.  As long as the river is to my left, I know my bearings. I briefly consdier climbing back up, but I follow the path in front of me.  This isn’t the first time I’ve ended up on a side trail and discovered some hidden nugget in this place, and it’s not the first time I’ve had to bushwack to get back on the main trail.  After all, the main trail hugs the west side of the river, so as long as I keep to the West Bank, I should eventually run into it.

This is going on swimmingly.  Large, even rocks protrude from the west bank into the Linville River, and we are trucking at a good pace. I come upon several hidden, secluded camping spots next to deep pools fed by roaring cascades, and I file them all away for future use. I feel like this trip’s post is going to be all about lucky missteps or being willing to take an adventerous route and being rewarded or some other such bullshit like that.  Then the trail changes slightly.  I’m climbing over fallen logs and through roots.  The journey has slowed.  I consider turning around again, but—too late!–I see the Bynum Bluff Cliffs (of insanity!), and sense my reunion with the main trail is near, so I push forward.

As the cliffs near, the progress grinds to a halt.  The bottom of the cliffs drop to a sheer, impassible, vertical façade into the water.  There is no way to continue on this side.  My two choices are to return to the original trail or cross the river.  I look to the other side:  a shore line of large boulders and rocks jutting from the East shore.  Boots off.  Water shoes on.  Making my way down to the waterfall on the other side—in my not so humble evaluation–should be no problem.

To be fair, my hiking has involved many river crossings this summer, so I am undaunted.  My four-legged companions are less enthusiastic.  Juno is supsect of the water on general principle, and Atticus—though he likes to slosh around in water when the can see the bottom—becomes frozen when he is unable to judge the depth in running water.  No amount of wheedling or cajoling can get them to come forward, so I perform my version of the old joke about keeping the wolf away from the sheep while crossing the river.  I drop my pack, come back, get Juno to the other side, come back, get Atticus—who has stood statue-still on a rock for the last five minutes–to the other side.  I only fall once but I soak my backside to the waist.  I catch my breath and we continue downstream.

There is, of course, a problem.  I am a biped, six feet tall with hands that grip. My body, despite a battery of age and lingering injury, intuits a relatively swift passage to the water fall.  My companions are quadrapeds, 1-2 feet tall at the most with bulbous paws.  They’re really good at staying on a trail in front of them, or chasing a rodent off the trail and finding it again.  But in a place where there’s no clear path, they’re kind of lost.  They watch me for cues, but what is easy for me is not readily availible for them.  I stand ready to pick them up by their pack, but they are not always eager to hike in this manner.  Atticus will get to a point and stop, getting this “I need an adult!!!” look on his face.  Juno, on the hand, whimpers and runs back, looking for an alternative route, or perhaps hoping I’ll follow her, back to the more sensible part of the trail.

Each time I have to climb over a rock and return—one at a time—to shepherd the dogs, I become frustrated.  I take treacherous steps—a knee-to-nose climb—and realize that this is a full-body leap for the dogs.  They stop and look at me, and I cross wobbly footing in reverse, then walk it forward again, dog in hand.  Atticus looks at me like “Is this really worth it?” I wonder this myself.  But we are on the dark side of the moon.  The only way out is forward.  Nevertheless, I can’t convince them with my powers of logic.  They keep stopping and stopping, and running up the hill and running down the hill.  Could they just follow me instead of making this such and ordeal???

Finally, we make our way to the top ledge of the waterfall.  I see the older couple across the river, taking a small break.  Atticus lets me lower him down.  But Juno is tired of this tomfoolery.  As I try to reach for her backpack, she sprints back through a fallen tree and up the rocks.  I’m tired of chasing her.  And I’ve hiked with her so long that I know I don’t have to.  I leash Atticus to the rock below, climb back up to the ledge, and sit and wait for Juno to come to me.

I wait.  Within a minute, she has walked beside me and is licking my face.  I hold her backpack and begin to lower myself down to help her. But she refuses, leaping 7 feet down to the next ledge on the falls.  We are at the pool.  It’s not Babel Tower: it’s the swimming hole at the 90 degree bend where I was going to rest on the way back up the trail.  But now it is the turnaround, and the trail is still on the other side of the river.  So, I slip on my swimsuit and take my dogs, first Atticus then Juno, by the handle of the backpack, and swim them across the river.

It’s 4:00, three and half hours since I left the car at the trailhead.  In some ways, I try to take this accomplishment as a measure of solace after a long, grueling trip.  Neither of my dogs have swum any great distance.  However, all of my muscles are so tired that it is difficult to feel celebratory.  I throw down my pack and dig for snacks.  I string up my hammock and begin to feel like myself again.

I turn to head back to the swimming hole, about 25 feet up the river.  There’s a guy in a blue shirt.  I think he’s talking to me.  I walk closer.  It’s my amigo—a fellow teacher from school.  We talk camping talk all the time in the halls, and we have randomly run into each other a two hour drive and a four mile hike from home.

Atticus nuzzles up to him like he does with everyone, and soon we delve into the trail and the camping and what we’ve been doing all summer.  We trade in knowledge.  “I saw an older couple from Vermont,” he says.  “They haven’t even broken a sweat.”  Soon, I am jumping back into the river to clean off my hard-earned miles of sweat with an afternoon swim, testing the depths, leaping from the rock face, feeling the frustration of the trek wash away in the chilly water.  By 5:30, I’m packed and up the trail, back at the car in an hour.

On the way back up the trail, I watch Atticus and Juno climb.  A proverb comes to mind:  “if you want to travel fast, travel alone:  if you want to travel far, travel together.  A couple of times, Atticus needs a boost, but Juno shows off her still fresh vertical leap skills.  They are short, sharp-nosed quadrapeds.  Amazing in many ways, but perhaps not as prepared to brave the nefarous terrain as a bushwhacking, boulder-hopper like myself. But this walk in the woods is a walk in the woods compared to the hike to the bottom of the Gorge.  This place always has a way to humble your expectations, to present a more grueling experience that you had imagined.  But in the end, the day was fresh air, strong exercise, a swim in a sunlit waterfall, a chance encounter with a friend, smiles and ear scratches and dog kisses and the whole posse coming safely home to sleep the best sleep in the world.  The tough steps of the trail and the refreshing calm of the woods all wash over us as we drift out, as always, better for having made the journey together.

A Love Letter to my Wife on Thoreau’s Birthday

It’s Tuesday morning when I call you.  By 9:00, you and I hang up, and I point the ship westward.  This happens quite a bit at our house.  We often get pulled in two different directions over the summer.  You’ve been pulled to Denver to train for AP Capstone, while I have been pulled by the song of running water and the rustle of trees to go sleep in the woods for a couple of nights.

What’s odd about this week, however, is that it’s our anniversary.  Maybe not odd, actually.  In the seven years we’ve been married, we have had almost half of our July 12’s with us in different dots on the map.  We try not to let it be a big deal, and we try to make something up for not being there on the actual day, but our hearts miss each other nonetheless.

Tuesday afternoon, I arrived at Lake Watauga around 1:30 and hit the AT south just before two.  Short time to hike, so I needed to bust it.  Over a paved road, the trail begins to climb.  I see three hikers coming off the trail—the last three people I would see until I emerged on the other side of the mountain.  The area is called Pond Mtn. Wilderness.  It is an empty, empty space, one path winding over a mountain and back down it.  Once I got off the lake shore, the buzz of humanity came to a calm.  Then for the remainder of the mountain—silence.

In silence, the daily chatter, the constant stimulation of modern life begins to fall away, and I begin to hear the truth within my heart.  I enjoy the solitude.  And while I wish you were with me, I know this might make you miserable—the dirt, the sweat, the bugs.  We don’t always want the same thing, a fact that sometimes has us moving in two different directions, and when I move in this direction—out to the nether regions, out in the middle of nowhere–you worry over me.  But such is the open space we hold for each other, to let us explore our happiness, whether together or apart.

On the other side of the mountain, my legs are weak and my knees wobbly.  The descent is like a rocky goat path, and I take a break near the water.  I aspire to push further—at least another four miles by sunset—but as I continue on the path, I realize that a secure campsite for the night is better than a hypothetical one down the trail.  It is perfect—secluded and quiet.  The dogs rest, I start a fire, and doze in an out, lying in my hammock, reading Alan Watts and staring at the stars.

I wake up on Wednesday.  It’s our anniversary.  July 12.  I’m in no rush to get out of camp.  I see if I have enough of a signal to send you a happy anniversary text, but by opening that portal on my phone, a flood of updates and chatter comes to me.  I turn off the phone again.  I want you to know that I’m safe and that I love you.  I don’t want to be distracted by what is on my phone with all this beautiful wonder around me.

It’s Thoreau’s birthday, and perhaps by the accident of chance, I find myself waking up underneath the canopy of trees beside the rushing water on this day.

When we set a wedding date, we chose the summer because we are both teachers.  But you suggested this day because of the birthday of one of my favorite writers of all time.  I wonder if you knew what you were gettng into, marrying a guy who was honored to share Thoreau’s birthday.  After all, Thoreau himself was a notable loner of a crank, a guy who could be stubborn and aloof, a guy who feels like he has to get away from people and into the woods to feel fulfilled, full of contradictions, all qualities that—for better or worse—I see in myself.  But after I have broken fast and had my morning meditations, I am off to fulfill the purpose of this day.

I cut out a climb by crossing the water twice and find myself at the base of Laurel Falls, a primeval cascade that over millennia has carved a pool beneath.  When I was 22 and living in Boone, this was one of the first places I learned to hike by myself.  I would hike here, jump off the cliffs a few times, nap, and hike out.  There are already people here snapping pictures of themselves in front.  I plan on making a morning visit then looping back for an evening swim.


Transcendentalists are–by nature–animists, believing in the living spirit in all things.  Of course, Thoreau was reading Vedic texts by Walden pond, but it’s important to see this as a more primal relationship with the natural world around him.  At a basic level of walking through the forest, we recognize our biology as harmonious with those beings around us, and recognize them as beings much like ourselves at a molecular level.  Trees, mosquitos, moss, snakes, frogs–we are all the same building blocks.  The mid-day sweat and my mind are rolling, and I find myself melting into the sea of green that rolls over the mountain, and over the next and the next, an intricate network of roots and limbs that stretches further than my ability to see but not my ability to imagine.  Soon, I come upon a waterfall in seclusion, and as Atticus plops in a pool, I too bathe in its waters to cool me down.  I hear you imploring me to be careful, knowing that taking the time to cool down in this heat is the most careful thing I could do.  Later up the trail, I find myself crossing deep stream after deep stream, wading knee deep through rushing currents.  By the time turnaround approaches, the path has led me to an open and quiet pool embraces by giant rocks, large enough for swimming and treading and sumberging myself beneath the cold surface.  We all rest as I wash off the sweat of the last two hours, a final ablution before I return to the mothership.


I return to Laurel Falls around 6, snack, make my sacred offering, and dive in.  I’d love to tell you what it was like to swim in those waters, to stand under the waterfall and feel the water pounding on my head.  But I can’t.  The words are insufficient for the experience.  The best I can say is that it filled me with song. A song I know but sometimes forget to sing. A kiss from the heart of God.  A song I carry with me today.  A thick, rolling song from deep within my chest, exploding to the tree tops and through the sky.  As night falls and the fire dies, it is the song that sings me to sleep, infusing my dreams with the gentle rhythms of the forest.  I have met my soul on the path I have walked today.

It’s Thursday morning.  Time to pack up.  Time to go back over the mountain.  Time to rejoin the world of paved roads, smart phones, and automobiles.  Up the goat path with wobbly rocks, back over the hump, and back down to the Lake.

On Tuesday, I had wondered what I would do when I came home on Thursday afternoon.  Somewhere in my reading out here, Watts discussed anxiety over the future as that which disassociates the mind from the body.  Plus, I know this will be a strenuous journey.  As I climb the rocks, I have no capacity to think so far ahead as when I get home.  So this morning, it’s just one step in front of the other.  Left.  Right.  Left.  Right.  I’ve told myself I’m going to be patient.  This mountain isn’t going anywhere.  I take a break at the top.  And as my foot starts getting hotspots, I consider pushing through, but then wonder why I’m in such a hurry, and opt for self care: I won’t get any medals for getting their quicker with painful blisters

There’s been time in the last few months where our life has had to take this plodding, deliberate pace, when we have had to sacrifice time and planning for self-care.  Sometimes it was hard to tell what the next weekend or the next day might bring and we have had to walk our path side by side, putting one foot in front of the other.  On the mountain, it is relatively easy, as the mountain isn’t going anywhere.  In life, it can be much more daunting, as we have often wondered which hairpin turn or treacherous descent may come next in our path, and we can worry for all the opportunities that may have passed us by.  But as we’ve taken this pace down our path, I see your resolve.  I see your capacity to care for others.  I see your grit and determination.  I see your vulnerability.  I see your ability to move and adapt to the contours of the land.  While we are thousands of miles away as I walk the miles on this path through the Pond Mountain Wilderness, I am and will be your companion and the paths that matter most.

We’ve started daydreaming about where next summer will lead usMaybe next year on Thoreau’s birthday we’ll stand under a waterfall together or traveling foreign lands.  Or maybe we will again find ourselves apart in two different points on the globe.  But on the path that matters most, I will happily walk with you side-by-side, singing the song of my soul to you.

Sanctuary Sunday and Mid-Week Pilgrimage

 

Sunday morning is my sanctuary.  One of the dogs wakes me, and I slowly roll out of bed and walk ten minutes to a yoga class in my neighborhood.  When done, I walk ten minutes back in a neighborhood of old-growth trees and creeks.

This past Sunday was beautiful, with just the right flavor of breeze to make the trees sway a hypnotic dance and remind me that I hadn’t gone on in a long hike in a couple of months.  It was enough to make me rush home, grab Nic and the dogs, throw everything in the car and head west.  Unfortunately on my agenda for the day?  Home repairs.  Yes, in this extra wet summer we’ve endured here in the South, one of my gutters decided it needed to be free, and I need to convince it to stay, lest I continue to have rain leak behind the paint of my bedroom wall.

Ordinarialy I enjoy home repair as well as a root canal.  Look, I get the virtue of it, and the cost/benefit analysis for it.  But do I enjoy it?  No.  I always find myself mulling the opportunity cost…where I’d rather spend the money and time, which takes a ding on the “job well done” feeling.  Not to mention I feel our culture has a strange fetish with home perfection that I never have been able to buy into, what Kahlil Gibran calls a “lust for comfort” that “murders the passion of the soul.”  However, today while in the last few still minutes of class of yoga, I found myself at peace with my chores, and realized that if approached them thankful that I had a sound house in which to dwell that my attitude toward repairing it might improve, that I should love my house and love the work I do on it.

It also didn’t hurt that I was going to go hiking later in the week, making the tedium of the labor easier to endure with that on the horizon.  When your only day off is a weekend or a holiday, spending that time sweating on housework is soul-crushing.  However, when you’re on vacation, not only can you wait patiently, you can wait until there are fewer people with the day off and you can have sweating on the hiking trails all to yourself, a sentiment posed beautifully in the song below–when you have every day off, weekends and holidays is when it’s crowded for you. One of my friends once posed that this NOFX song should be the summer anthem for every teacher, and that remains to this day the smartest thing he has ever said.

So while everyone else went back to work on July 5, I threw the furry beasts in the back of the truck and headed west to Wilson Creek, kind of a modern no-man’s land, if you will.  All the trails are off dirt roads, and you can’t really use a conventional driving GPS to plot it, so it feels like you are going deep in the middle of nowhere to get your hike on.  If Sunday was working on building the sanctuary from the storm, Wednesday was my mid-week pilgrimage to hike unknown (to me) paths, to find undiscovered (by me) waterfalls.

The goal for the day is Grogg Prong Falls–I know, a mouthful–for a turn around.  According to one website, it will be about a 6-7 mile out and back.  According to the same website, this hike and this waterfall can be treacherous when wet.  As I walk down the trail, I hear a distant drum roll of thunder and realize that my rain coat is in the car, not in the pack.  Too far down the trail to want to turn back around at this point, I shrug it off and make my peace with the potential rain.  It’s summer.  There’s always some threat of thunderstorms out here.  When it does rain, it’s usually just enough to cool things down.  Unless it dumps, then, of course, you’re all wet in the muggy, muggy woods, hiking yourself into certain rashes and abrasions.  If only there were a roof and gutter system to keep me dry and comfortable.

But rain does create other dangers as well.  Rocks slicken.  Rivers bloat.  Trails muddy and erode.  And in this part of the world, when things get wet, they stay wet.  It’s clear from early on the trail that rain has been here recently.  Slippery roots frame muddy bogs on narrow trails that overlook the river.  On one section, maybe six inches wide and thirty feet up, it seems that the trail has completely eroded.  A family camps across the river, and they later tell me the had to but slide down and wash it off.  Ugh,  river crossing, the gentle dance of the trail.  Always a game of “do I take my boots off or do I rock hop?” which includes the extra obstacle of the dogs getting them all good and wet before I start.   But seeing this ubiquitous wetness as a series of obstacles is a very “hiker-centric” orientation.  The continuous moisture animates a world of colored fungus and fauna that puts any pre-planned garden to shame: life–vibrant and unpredictable–sits around every corner.


About an hour and a half into the pilgrimage, I reach the turnaround–Grogg Prong Falls.  The water begins in a pool atop then slides down in a serpentine twist down a gradual rock face into an open valley flanked by tall cliffs on either side.  The solitary swimming at the bottom is enticing, but the path is treacherous.  Someone has even taken the liberty to paint yellow arrows to the best possible path to the bottom.


However, the rain that has glazed the rocks and churned the dirt has made its mark here as well.  Though it is sunny and warm, all the rain in the soil atop these cliffs have slowly bled down the rock face, creating a continuous, mossy slick.  I begin to inch my way toward the bottom, but Atticus is a good bellwether.  At 100 pounds he does well, but he’s not always the most feathery on his feet. As he stares at me panting,  I remember a maxim good for hiking and life in general–any thing you climb up,  you need to be able to get down, and anything you climb into, you need to be able to get back out.  True for humans, but more so since the dogs are my responsibility.  By the time I’m twenty feet down, the whole time sliding butt to ankles, I catch my center of gravity precariously turn just enough when I look and see that the sheerest part of the face is all wet and I imagine it turning past the point where I can catch myself. A few more inches and I may find myself sliding another twenty feet. I’ve reached my limit for day.  Maybe another day during drought situations this place is safer to scale, but today is not that day.

“Pushing your boundaries” is one of those classic outdoors cliches that people use to justify all manner of risk-taking.  I’m not saying to don’t push them, but I’m also not an adrenaline junkie.  Sure, I’ve taken risks when they’re available, but I’m pretty good at looking before I leap.  Also, I didn’t come out here for that “rush.” of pushing to the edge of death.  I’ve been down that trip before.  But I do make my way into the woods to find things deep inside that I can never get sitting in the four walls of my house, staring at my television.  I never really know what it’s going to be, but opening myself up to those possibilities–the touch of fingers on rock, the wild rush of water, the slight fear at the edge of danger–always yields something that makes the pilgrimage worth the effort.

A clap of thunder breaks me out of this eddy of thought.  I gauge my time, probably an hour back to the base of the trail, where Hunt Fish Falls and a gorgeous swimming hole await, and another 30 minutes to the car.  So to play it safe in case the rain decides to fall, I start to hustle back to the south. By 3:15, I’m out on the rocks underneath the falls looking for a quick dip in the water before the patches of grey overwhelm the patches of blue and break a deluge on me.

Every thread of my hiking clothes are drenched in sweat and my legs and shoulders are getting the beginning of fatigue.  I figure this will be a short swim with the storm looming, so I change quickly.  The thunder rumbles behind me to the east, so I waste no time diving into the water, climbing up the rock face next to the pool, and jumping into the waterfall current, swept back to a large, mostly flat rock jutting into the river.  Atticus romps happily through the water while Juno explores all dry areas to eventually lie in the shade with utter indifference.  Soon, I am back on the rock, and the grey has receded slightly, seemingly moving to the south of the area, so I sit on the rock to dry.


But just as quickly, the storm returns.  The leaves flutter in the soaring wind, warning of the deluge to come.  Then the water starts: small droplets, medium droplets, but curiously never enough rain to chase me from the spot. just enough to cause discernable coencentric circles in the waters surface, a slight percussion just enough to edify the dreamy melody of this perfect afternoon.  Then the sun returns, its light refracting through the river surface to create a fractured golden glow beneath the falls.  Its glow is the perfect temperature for a brief nap on the rocks, lullabied by the gushing water, the calls of birds, the receding timpani of the sky.  The very molecules of my body vibrate to this harmony.  I rise to find a part of me will always stay here, and a part of here will always stay with me.  As I gather my things, a group of fellow hikers make their way to the second level of the falls and melt into the waterfall.  The life without me and within me flows with effortless connection.  I find myself in a subtle, peaceful bliss as I head up the trail.

It’s a moment now etched in memory, one I could have never grasped had I allowed myself to be consumed by a “lust for comfort.”  Through these journeys over muddy trails and through muggy air, there are often these moments that are too beautiful and perfect for words, too unpredictable to be planned and packaged.  I cherish them in sacred space of my memory. But they come only to those willing to brave the storms to take the blind pilgrimage to receive them.  As Gibran says, those who can not be tamed by the lust for comfort see their house as “not an anchor but a mast.”  And so, the glow of the afternoon fading into evening, I make my way up the 30 minute climb out of the gorge and point my ship to the sanctuary of my home, the comfort of my bed, where I will sleep dry, rested, and sated–the best sleep I ever have–until the call for the next pilgrimage comes.

The Arrival of Choices

IF YOU CHOOSE TO CONTINUE READING, SPOILERS MAY LIE AHEAD.

Last night, I met up with some friends, old and new, to play some bar trivia. It’s a summer indulgence, as staying out late past my bedtime at Sir Edmund Halley’s trying to to remember the name of that Velvet Underground song usually conflicts with me being an effective teacher on Tuesday morning.  It’s a choice I choose to ignore during the school year..

In between rounds, inevitably the question from the non-teachers was “What are you doing with your summer?” which soon led to the discussion that a teacher’s extended vacation time—the exception rather than the rule here in the States—is expected in many other countries around the world.  Many workers in other countries can have this much time away from work–not just teachers. It’s a shame. I don’t know you people with “real jobs” do it—wake up every weekday to work with only a week’s vacation a year. Every day in the school year, I wake up often with the goal to keep all the plates spinning, to make all my classes go off without a hitch in addition to handling any other curveballs life throws my way. It requires enough effort sometimes that it seems like taking the time to do small things—going on a hike, seeing my friends and family, musing over the meaningless in a blog post, and yes, playing bar trivia on a Monday night—seem like luxurious options limited by the necessity of obligation.

Then the Arrival of Summer. The Arrival of Choices. Time to do all the things you put aside for ten months. Time opens up, and you find yourself waking up with no plan for the day but the nagging feeling like you should have one. It wears off after a while, often at the time where you become comfortable watching a movie you’ve already seen a hundred times, or literally making a schedule out of a dentist appoinment and a kayaking trip, or shooting hoops and trying to fire out an insightful blog post. At the outset of summer vacation, choices seem infinite; but this, too, is an illusion: summer won’t last forever, there are only so many days to do all the things you dream of in the doldrums of February, and as the guy at Great Outdoor Provision Company reminded me as I mused a map of Lake Keowee: “the summer will be over be fore you know it.”

So I hopped on a river not far from my house that afternoon. My mind began to adust to this new and temporary reality in the slow, lazy paddle. And from the depths of that floating, cold water bubbled up puzzles and thoughts I had tucked in the back files of my mind for the expedience of grading papers and completing paperwork. But spurred on by sloshing water and cold beer, there is nothing but time to mull over the sparks of inspiration I had stowed away.

arrival alien ship

One such spark came when I began to muse the film Arrival. I caught this movie in the theaters and geeked out to my students. Fortunately, it came out on DVD in time to be the last film we screened in the school year. Sometimes my non-teaching friends snort with derision that getting paid by the state to show movies is like stealing money. However, the mix of adoration, confusion, and discomfort this film provided for my students sparked such myriad and diverse reaction and conversation that it has stuck with me for the last month, only now to rise to the surface of my conscious mind. The movie, without giving too much away, is challenging for them not only because of the complex story structure, but also because it challenges the basic tenets of their worldview on two major fronts.

The first is time. For our students who are driven to succeed academically, time is often expressed as a series of linear of events, always moving forward, in which they often sacrifice immediate joy for future security and happiness. If I do ‘X’, I will achieve positive future ‘Y’ and avoid negative future ‘Z’. Philosophically, the film represents an alternate perspective of time, often referred to as a “God’s-eye” view or “four-dimensional time.” Much like in Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five, time is the fourth dimension that can be traveled in multiple directions once one has the knowledge, and our traditional designations of time—past, present, and future—are but mere points on a map. In this paradigm, saying “my actions in the present cause the future” is no more logical than saying “Boston causes New York” just because one happens to be traveling south on I-95.

This characteristic of time poses the more daunting theory, that the universe is ultimately deterministic. If time can be travelled backwards and forwards, it means that what we refer to as the future is already set. If it can be known, it must already be set in stone. And if it is not created causally, it means our choices in the present do not necessarily cause our future, that doing my homework and studying for my tests over binging a season of Game of Thrones will not guarantee my ultimate future happiness. To be fair, students often feel the gnawing of this if they look at themselves in the system of school and wonder if it really matters if they sacrifice sleep for homework again or if they take the right classes to t get into the right school. For teenagers struggling to find themselves and their identity in the miasma of high school life, the idea that their choices don’t matter and that their future is already mapped out in front of them is the last thing they want to hear.

So for some students, seeing Louise give in to this deterministic model without a fight rubs them the wrong way at their very core, striking at a belief on which they found their lives—that their choices matter and that they are free to shape their future. But seeing Louise’s “big choice” in the film as one of free will vs. determinism is fairly reductive. True, it’s one of the most fundamental struggles of introductory philosophy, but as Alan Watts once posed, that either option, that we control the universe or that it controls us, presupposes that we are separate from its workings. More problematic, getting hung up in this question inhibits us from seeing life as a richer, more beautiful experience. In Louise’s choice, she realizes that sorrow will be the ultimate outcome of her decision and yet she makes it anyway. This confounds some of my students. Why will she make a choice that ultimately ends in her own sadness? The hardline freewillers want her to choose otherwise now that she knows the future, to take hold of her own destiny and bend it to her will, so they are flummoxed when she “chooses” not to. In their teenage empathy, they feel frustrated and betrayed that she simply allows the pain at the end of her choice to take place, rather than seeing how the future is laid out and taking it by the reins and changing it. After all, the paradigm of school as an instrumental good is based on making choices we don’t like, sacrificing temporary joy to secure it more permanently and avoid more pain in the future.

I had quite a few students vent this to me. It feels like adults resigning. But I kept finding a perverse comfort in Louise’s choice: it reminds me of Lebanese Poet Kahil Gibran, who in The Prophet wrote, “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall find that in truth you are weeping for that which is your delight.” Choosing otherwise, Louise could have avoided the pain only at the expense of the intervening happiness that made that pain so poingiant.

 

This might get bleak for a bit, but stick with me. You’ll come out on the other side. Suffering is a part of life. When Buddhists propose “get rid of desire and get rid of suffering,” it works great for not worrying about having a bigger house or a newer car. But it’s horrible advice for dealing with people. If you love and care for people, they will get sick. They will suffer. Taken literally, the Buddha’s advice would be to not care for them in the first place. Unless you’re committing to a life of ascetic monasticism, you’re committing to a life of unempathetic psychopathy, shunning relationships to avoid the inevitable pain that comes with caring about people. Making a choice to avoid one type of suffering is simply bound to bring another to your door—without the appertaining Joy as comfort. At some level, as Gibran posed, the two are intertwined, and only “when you are empty” are you balanced.”

As you can guess, many find the ending of the film to be a shade over bittersweet, tending toward the bleak and fatalistic. Those who have read the original source material—Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life” have characterized it as even darker. And while Director Denis Villeneuve admits to changing some basic facts to better evoke the audience’s empathy, those critics often miss one crucial point. In the short story, Lousie does try to do things to change the final outcome, to protect the ones she loves from the future that she knows lies ahead for them. In the end, however, she admits the relative futility of this as her attempt to protect them may have pushed them to undertake more and more risky behavior. I know. It sounds like Greek Tradgedy. Oedipus gets sent away only to fulfill the prophecy. While I don’t think the universe is built with this perverse sense of humor, there’s something to the absurdity of the universe that trying to mitigate our own suffering can sometimes cause it, that X doesn’t always prevent Y, and sometimes it causes it, that sometimes studying that extra hour makes you sleepier on the day of your test. Maybe this is what Gibran means by being empty, not being surprised when things don’t work out like you planned.

The film ends alternating major and minor chords in a palindromic violin sequence that–despite befuddling my students– I find poignant with a beautiful sadness.  Perhaps this is me existing at a different point on the axis of time, able to consider this through a bit more age and experience.  Enduring the difficult times of life can often lead you looking for reasons, things you could’ve done otherwise.

Realizing that these hardships are not to be avoided, but rather endured as part of the oscillation of life’s waves, and that their difficulty is inextricably linked to our love and joy does not remove the weight of the burden–the scramble for time, the re-organization of priorities–but it does salve the wounds of the sting.  With these realizations–and the time to ponder–arrive choice, as the Stoics put it, of how we endure and recognize the common humanity in each other, how we deal with the moments beyond our control, and how we learn to appreciate beauty and express gratitude in even the most challenging of times.

 

But…What If I Don’t Have a Third-World Immigrant’s Story?

 

AP Tests ended a couple of weeks ago, and with them the inevitable entropy of released expectations. All year, my students have performed with laser-like focus on their academic goals while also shouldering the burdens of normal teenage hormones, finding the perfect prom dress, handling the expectations of their parents, and facing many of the other curveballs life can throw any of our ways. But with the passing of those hurdles, focus shifts, we loosen our metaphorical ties, and reorient our gaze to the next markers in the near future: the end of the year, summer plans, the college application process.

It’s at this point where I try my little part to shed a little candlelight into their darkness. They’re very, nervous, you see. Now that they’ve done all this work, the looming process of realizing their goal—college admission—is a daunting, haunting, path, not the reward they should see for all their hard work, but rather a mysterious process of cutthroat competition.

And their fears are not unfounded. From a very young age, they have any number of adults attempt to impress upon them the benefits of success and the dire consequences of failure: I jest often that falling short of perfection will not leave them homeless, living under and overpass, but the joke is founded in the penumbra of their anxiety, so much so that when I told my class this year that “there are unhappy people with degress and happy people without them” that I provoked a temporary full-blown existential crisis in at least one of my students.

So, I try to be open and let them ask as many questions as they can, give them the best advice I can. Some advice is practical—ask for recommendations before summer vacation; some is more spiritual—if the checking the computer causes you dread, perhaps you should step away from the computer. And they have lots of question, from the mundane to the mystical.

In the course of last week, there were two particularly articulated student frustrations that stuck most at me, two questions of which I could not dispose so easily, not because I couldn’t give an easy answer, but that they gave me a small window into the struggles of my students. 

First, on the day we discuss college recommendations, students realized that their counselors often must write recommendations for them, and at that time they also realize that their counselors likely don’t know them from Adam’s housecat. It’s not really their fault. Each counselor at our school has hundreds of students on their caseload, and often their counselors may switch on them two or three times over the course of their high school career. Even the cliché’, “maybe you should swing by with some breakfast for them” doesn’t always help: after all, a guidance counselor can only eat so many chicken biscuits, am I right?


Following that question, two classes later on college admission essay day, we read sample best essays published by the New York Times. That my students belittle their own talent (“I could never write this good” “You mean well?”) and think they are not capable of such writing is one worry. Perhaps more worrisome for them, however, is that they fear they have nothing on which to build such a great essay, that their life bears no great tragedy they have had to overcome, no mythical ocean to cross, no great struggle to stand astride as defining to who they are as a person.

This fills them with dread. If they lack these elements of their profile, they are at a competitive disadvantage to a rival who does. What can they write about?  How much they love pizza?  Surely, they will be excluded from the college of their dreams, the door of success slammed in the face, down the slippery slope under that overpass.

This seems a hardship for them, but perhaps this is a good time for a lesson in empathy, to look beyond themselves, and recognize the good fortune that many of them have. For here is truly the root of this disparity. I’ve had lots of students whose counselors know them very well, who have such stories of resilience and fortitude on which to build a personal narrative. They may not have litterally grown up under and overpass, but many have struggled with stable housing, have borne the burden of being a quasi-parent to their younger siblings, have endured the specter of actual violence, have faced the daunting climb of becoming a first-generation American. They have relationships with their counselors because they have needed them. They have their narritives forged in the crucible of conditions that we would never want for ourselves, even if it gave us a strong essay topic to stand out in college admissions.

In his 2005 commencment address to Kenyon college—which was later convereted to an essay titled “This is Water”—Amercian author David Foster Wallace identifies this type of thinking as a default setting. We see ourselves in constant competition with others, and thereby see others as an impediment to our own success, which is pretty twisted when you’re thinking, “Man, I wish my parents had floated me across the Mediterranian on a raft so I could have a good college essay.” The obsession over grades and GPA’s certainly nurtures this default setting, but nothing may solidify it at such a young age as this grand passage into seeking white collar, first-world nirvana. And while I try to calm their nerves, a small part gnaws at me. By teaching in this system, am I complicitly perpetuating this rat-race mentality or am I doing my small part to diffuse it by answering these questions in the first place?

There is, however, a deeper question that lies beneath this. I teach in a school diverse in many ways, but there is certainly a sizeable portion of students for whom want and discomfort has rarely been a part of their existence. Their parents have worked tirelessly to give them every possible advantage. Sure, taking upper-level classes may have been a challenge for them, but as they look around at their peers, they recognize that this doesn’t make them any more special, more definite than anyone else. It would be easy to mock their privelege and relative ignorance about the world that it affords. But these students, too, are perhaps as needing of our empathy as any young person. They are entering that crucial stage in their life where their actions, their choices will define them as adults. As they pass beyond public school, into the university, it will become much easier for them to innoculate themselves against the varied struggles of other human beings, easier for them to disdain the shortcomings of “the others” as being lazy or ignorant. Instead of wishing they had a great third-world immigrant story, they may self-righteously jest to their similarly priveleged friends that the guy who works the campus convenience store should learn to speak English better.

I hope they wont. But those choices are out of my control. In a few more weeks, they will be out of my charge, and my ability to influence them will diminish greatly, ready for the next cohort to enter the gauntlet of junior year. So it goes. However, something about this week of exchanges will stay with me into the summer, into the planning for next year, into thinking about how I prepare to send teenagers to the four winds as they come into my classroom as fresh, driven young faces, hoping to make their mark on the world, just like all of those who have come before them.

New Year’s Resolutions:  The Paradox of Intention

New Year’s Eve yoga. Whether people are getting a jump on a New Year’s resolution or trying to pre-detox before a night of revelry, the class teemed with wall-to-wall yogis. Nary a space for privacy or comfort, and “see if you can touch your neighbor” became less of a cliché challenge and more of a direct instruction.
Such was also true for “set your intention,” Sometimes it’s a mere feathery overture at the beginning of a class. Often, it is a buzzword in the jargon of the trending “mindfulness” movement . At times, it is rooted in the traditions of a directed word and scripted meditation: concentrate on a word and you will direct yourself toward it. But today, on the day before every Jane, Joe, and their brother decide to take on the mantle of self-improvement, “setting an intention” takes on a certain new kairos, dovetailing nicely into the more modern New Year’s Resolution.

It’s a funny pairing in the yoga class. As yoga has adapted to more modern society, it is often paired with transformation, rebirth, “being the change”—all the things that New Year’s Resolutions represent. The hope of a new you. So, when the teacher(s) exhort us to set an intention for our practice, to think about what we want for the new year, yoga seems like a catalyst to that change, to become the you who you want to be as you sweat and twist and breathe.

Older philosophies, the ones in which yoga was first born, take a slightly different path to this change. In many ways, yoga was not employed to spur a change that the individual wants, but to remind the individual of who they truly are—an extenstion of the divine. Thinking about what “the individual” you wants seems to run antithetical, even misleading to this more divine interpretation of the Self. By this more ancient idea, the struggle of becoming something is often a trap that leads us from the knoweldge of who we truly are by worrying the ego about who we are not.  Trying to change ourselves, trying to outwit life by making ourselves better, detracts from the knowedge of who we are all along.

Hence, the paradox of intention as I move into the new year. Last year, I made something of a resolution, and for the most part I was pretty good about sticking to it. Instead of rising from bed each morning and rushing into a routine or a list of tasks, I resolved to take the time to center myself—through silence, through meditation, through yoga, through scratching my dog’s belly–if even for ten minutes, before I got into the basics of rushing around for the day.  Most days, I followed through on the resolution.  Some days, it didn’t.  Most days, it bore fruit.  Some days, it was more of a struggle than others. Some days, I forced myself to do it–a ritual without meaning, the finger and not the moon–and the beautiful fruit was not always on the vine. What’s more, I look back on a resolution accomplished not necessarily feeling any different, better or worse, than I was a year ago. On the other hand, when I think of places I want to go or changes I want to make, they all require effort, moving in a particular direction, they require intention of thought as the seed to intention of action. Thus, to do something, we must have it; but even if we do, we can’t be sure of the outcome.

On the way back from Chapel Hill this week, my father-in-law and I got into a protracted conversation about much in the spiritual realm, including the nature of change and sin and karma, how the outcomes of our efforts to change are often unpredictable, the seeming futility of making ourselves and the world better through sheer effort, and the difficulty of accepting grace we don’t earn.  And as the arbitrary cultural marker to reflect on the last and plan the next trips around the sun approaches, I am drawn to these ideas over and over. On the one hand, we are who we are. On the other hand, we have aspirations of who we wish to be. Those two don’t always jibe. Intentions are slippery. I could set a goal to make more money, eat healthier, exercise more, be more politically active, further my education, learn a new language, or give my time to charity work. Or I could strive to hone character qualities: gratitutde, love, charity, patience. Any of these changes—accomplished or not—could lead my path in a new direction that at the end of 2017 I may look back and decide I need a new direction all together. I could follow an intention, achieve it, and get further from who I need to be.

 This sounds like it could just be a Homer Simpson cop-out. But that’s not what I’m getting at. I have some ideas of things I want to accomplish in 2017, but I also want to make sure that these intentions are not just the vain desires of an striving ego, but rather outward manifestations of the divinity within. New Year’s Resolutions made to satisfy questionable desires are just as likely to bring more need for change. For example, let’s say I want to exercise more and eat healthier. This could be great as I would feel better, think more clearly, have a mind and body more receptive to a balanced and happy life. On the other hand, I could pursue that same goal out of some misplaced vanity or unresolved feeling of inferiority, and I might find myself at the finish line of that resolution no better than I was when I started.

I know. I tend to overthink things, and that includes New Year’s resolutions. Maybe that should be my resolution. Don’t think. Feeeeeel. But, that is in some way a true expression of the Self that I don’t wish to compromise. So, then, here’s to a resolution or two borne of healthy soil, sound mind, and open heart, and may all thirty of my readers have a prosperous and beautiful 2017.