carry kerouac/up a muddy, winding trail/new and familiar

Spring fever strikes a visceral yen to strap on boots and hit the trail.  All signposts point to rain.  I check the weather daily and decide that the portent of an hour of rain here and there are not enough to dissuade me.  I need the woods.

Despite the protests and better judgment of my friends, Chuck and I venture west to memorialize the weekend among the trees.  I know this loop well.  It has a special place in my heart from a solitary trek two years ago on a long Memorial Day weekend: that weekend, the weather was perfect and I found a harmony within the self as I hiked the trails, a harmony I was sure I’d find again.  Even so, the naysayers were right, as the heavens opened five minutes after we set foot on the trail, reminding me that you never step on the same trail twice.  We shuffle through nightfall and down a wet, dark trail, finally crossing the bridge over the creek and into camp around 10:00.  We make camp just in time to survive the next deluge, huddled under a tarp motionless, until shoveling dirt to avoid the flooding of the ground beneath becomes a task to distract from the darkness.

Dinner and comfy hammock time probably come around 12:30 under another two hours torrent.  You would think I’d be too tired to do much, but I did bring a trail library this time: a journal, The Essential Yoga Sutra, and Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, in which Kerouac fictionalizes his cross-country enlightenment-seeking life as Ray Smith.  It was a good choice, as I found myself with ample time under a rainy sky and a thick tarp.

Kerouac’s book fit the weekend as Smith and his mountain climbing friend Japhy bopped over western peaks, painting broad strokes on the world with a decidedly Buddhist brush.  By morning, the rain stops, and we’re able to dry.  I read on the balance of the quick cleansing of meditation and the deep opening of a lifetime of discipline.  I am prone to stay and swim the day away in the expansive, ever-loving womb of Lake Jocassee, but Chuck prods me on, agreeing to a compromise of a swim and creek exploration before we hit the trail again, allowing for the nascent morning sun to crest and dry us a bit more.

Baptized in the waters, the crud of a muddy night’s camp falls away, and the mind fills the expanse of the gorge, the universe, the void.  The meditation and the discipline held in balance.  All the ideas of a four-dimensional mind, limitless in their embryonic seeds, gush in the rushing waters at the mouth of the Toxaway joining the open, reflective infinity of the lake.  In an hour, we towel and reassemble packs, making our way across the 65-foot wooden swinging bridge, and up, up, up the side of the gorge.  As the trail levels, we summon the strength to trudge mightily to our goal for rest—Cobb Creek.

Here, a small, unassuming outcrop becomes our salvation.  We stop to snack and all four mammals de-pack.  But as I remove boots and aim to change socks?  Cats and dogs, once again.  With just enough of an overhang, we keep the packs and ourselves under the cliff, holding what little headway we had made against the encroaching dampness.  In ten minutes, the sky returns to the color of nectar—rich, baby Carolina blue.  We hike on.  Soon, we cross over the trail intersection and roll into Bear Camp with afternoon to spare.  We sit in a valley beneath the rim of the mountains as thunder cascades.  We are not sure what will come of all of this.  We are not sure of anything.  When we say we are, we often lie.  However, we are sure enough to know a nap would be in order.  I find Kerouac—in the library, still dry in my backpack.  As we fall into slumber, Chuck could hear me yucking it up in my tent as Ray claims he wants to stay in the beautiful valley while Japhy eggs on to heart-stopping height atop the mountains.

The book falls on my chest, falling in and out of conscious thought.  A low grumble pulls me out.  It’s Atticus: two campers and their dog near.  We agree they can share our site if they find nothing else, and I de-hammock to secure my canines.  It’s fine.  They’re too tired to move, but sometimes a Leviathan must step in to maintain the peace and tranquility for everyone, especially when dogs are involved.  It’s time to collect firewood anyway.  Then, we sup with two young Atlantans who are surprised that you can bring a block of cheese on a trail.  It’s the little things.  By nightfall, we are resting, well-fed, by a baby fire we’ve coaxed out of wet wood.  Soon, we feel the familiar trickle, perceive the familiar percussion of water dropping on leaves, dropping on dirt, dropping on us.  We bid good night and make our way back to the hammocks, and I join Japhy and Ray again.  Their third friend Morely, who has tried to find them in the night, now waits below in the meadow, as they climb higher and higher, now speaking only in terse haiku between heaving, ecstatic breaths, scrambling to the top.  Soon, Ray finds his moment of fear, panics, and climbs no longe, clinging frightened to the side of a mountain, Japhy finishes the ascent; Ray finds something profound in the order of the universe, and sleep steals me into the night.

The morning comes as a falling tree breaks the silence, crashing to the temperate, rainforest floor.  Our guests leave—they are set to make it to the parking lot and drive home.  We are more leisurely as we seek only to take a side trail a couple of miles after crossing the Toxaway, the one bugaboo that Chuck had fretted.  We climb knee to chest for a couple of miles.  I relay the trail info as we hike.  We would reach a small creek crossing under cascades, custom-made for rock hopping but a breeding ground for ticks.  There are rumors of side-trails to waterfalls, and if we reach the river in the early afternoon with plenty of time to spare, we may go exploring.  The sun, now almost hot for the first time all weekend, glares as we cross under power lines in open Piedmont clay.

The cascades should’ve have been a harbinger, but we were on the dark side of the moon at this point.  Where once I had hopped bunny-like from rock to rock, the water now swirls in bowls, carving fresh stone as it rushes downhill.  These waters are dangerous, and I creep carefully to get the obligatory money shot of the stop before climbing back down with equal trepidation.  Back on the trail, we climb back into the silence of the wood, the rush of footsteps, the jingle of bear bells.  Then we hear the faint rush of the river in the distance.  Soon we are on the valley.

I had assured Chuck that he river was shin deep, knee-deep max.  But as I search the area, all the signs point to a different river than the one I had slept beside two years ago.  The campsite, carved from a small river beach and idyllic in the haze of my memory, stood susceptible to flooding with one more inevitable rain.  The rock where I had laid cat-like mid-river in the sun now glistened in the constant clash of a rapid formed over its top.  The river was high, mighty, and fast.  The loop back to the car was over 15 miles, the hike out was 5-6.  We really had no choice but to press on.

First, the dogs.  We each take one.  Chuck takes Juno; I have Atticus.  Juno makes it across easily, but Atticus, closer to 100 pounds begins to sway in the current.  I crouch for stability as he his mass threatens to roll around my hip.  Juno now safe, Chuck jumps back in and lends the hand we need. Now, all dogs are save on shore.

Now the packs.  We had left them on the other shore to navigate the dogs.  If worse came to worst, I had a car key.  We had the vital cargo and could leave.  Chuck crosses, re-packs, and makes it 2/3 of the way across before he stepped in a hole, putting a precarious portion of his pelvis below the water, ceding dangerous high ground to the mighty Toxaway.  Adrenaline—he says—pushed him up and he scurried to the shore

I am less fortunate.  I can’t find the smoothest path, and three times I try to cross, only to be rebuffed by the chest-deep river.  On the third, my ankle falls in a hole deep enough that my body began twisting in the river like a flag in the wind.  Years of tree poses and half-moons save my bacon as I find a way to enough balance to push back up and waddle to the shore..  I stare long and hard at my backpack, facing the reality that I may have to do without all my possessions if I can not fjord the Toxaway.  We look for other routes, scrambling over rocks and around trees.  Nothing.  It’s the river or nothing.

At school the previous week, a student project asked, “What can you make with paracord?”    Apparently, a daring and perhaps fool-hearty river crossing, in which we loop a fifty-foot line on a tree and hang on with one hand while crossing the river, learning finally to crab-crawl laterally.  Then in a stroke of madness, we hang the paracord across the river and clip my backpack on the line.  The weight sags the tree, the backpack now inches from the rushing water.  With a second line, I tie a safe-bag style to a Nalgene and huck it at Chuck.  The first two failures remind us of the stakes, as the bottle jets down the rapids, only to be pulled back with great effort.  On the third time Chuck retrieves it with a stick.

Then the caper took a wrong turn at Albequerque.  Chuck pulls the pack across the river, but the tension threatened to cut off all circulation in his wrist, and as he struggled to re-adjust, the rope slips, dipping the backpack into the river, grabbing it for a quick swim to the bottom of the Gorge.  The pressure rips the cord from the tree on my side of the river.  Somehow—my Spider-sense or whatever—I grab the rope out of the air and drag it back up the stream, keeping with all my might this bag from heading down stream.  Chuck re-establishes his grip, and soon he had pulled my back, now filled with the loving, maniacal kisses of the Toxaway, up to the safe bank.

After that ordeal, re-crossing the river seemed a dream.  Our journey of 50 feet, like the really old riddle of the goats and the wolves, had taken us an hour and a half.  I applied necessary first aid, changed back into boots, and we were back on the trail.

Not five minutes later—WHOOSH—the gentle symphony of rain now burst into the fifteen minute monsoons that had punctuated our trip.  Everything squished.  But after nearly being lost in the river, we were less bothered, as we were mostly soaked anyway

A mile later, we stumbled into camp.  We had snaked back to the river for the third time: once we found its bloating mouth filling the gorge, once we wrestled its mighty current, and now we set to rest and take of its water.  The sun retuned and all parts of the pack  were spread for evaluation.  Everything dripped with the borrowed river.  Miraculously, the library stayed dry and we hammocked for a brief afternoon nap. Ray and Japhy descended the mountain, again trading haiku the whole way.  At one point, he and Japhy sit on the edge of the mountain and pray over the whole valley, wishing a happiness devoid of meaningless desire to all of existence.  Ray tells Japhy about his prayer, where he imagines looking into the eyes of someone he loves…so he can see them.

All love to Nicole

All health and light that is coming to her.

May she become the Buddha she is destined to be.

He chants for his friends.  Then for those who frustrate him.  Then his enemies.  Japhy loves the prayer, and promises to take it with him as he goes further west to Japan.  After the trip, Ray would leave the west coast on a bittersweet note and try to hop a train heading east to Rocky Mount, an hour east of Chuck’s house.

It seemed a fitting pause point as our trip wound down.  The rain fell again as we slept, but I had the foresight of stowing dry wood under my tarp.  As the night fell, we stoked a fire.  I went to look at the river, so peaceful and lullabyish two years prior, now seemed to rage, swollen and malevolent under the setting sun.  You never step in the same river twice.  But it’s not just the river that changes drop by drop, rainfall, by rainfall, season by season.  It’s the you.  That night, as the rain drops fell sporadically, we ignored an impending storm, like a growing no-hitter, refusing to mention it by name for fear of breaking the spell.  Our fire, our outpost against the storm, burned as a two-level conflagration well into the night, and soon we entered our hammocks, this time of our own volition, and slept through the dry night.

It would seem an idyllic ending to the trip, the proverbial rainbow after the rain.  But the water cycle had other ideas.  Morning would only send us off with the best. As we assembled packs, the condensation resumed and followed us out.  I repeated Ray’s prayer for friends and foe alike as the trail climbed monotonously toward the car.  It brought a strange joy, a momentary diversion.  Soon, I encouraged Chuck to play the haiku game, and we mostly conjured dumb koans over the muddy dogs.  And even after all this distraction, the rain and the trail ground us down one last time, incessantly falling on the never-ending trail.  We willed step after step, hoping corner after corner would bring the trail intersection that would show that soon, very soon, within a mile’s even-grounded walk, we could ride in comfort, remove slimly clothes, eat warm food cooked with love in a quasi-civilized manner.  But these phantasms faded one after the other in to another corner, another rainy stretch of trail.  All the hope drained.  All the distraction disappearing.

Finally, an imprecation erupted from deep within.

Around the Corner

A game that hopes for signposts

Hiking though the void.

Eventually, of course, the intersection, the signpost, the car, the warm breakfast wrap and tea.  There is nothing in this trip I would plan to happen like it did.  There is nothing in this trip I would trade for any other experience.  By the time, we returned, the loop through the rain forest had ground me, molded me, humbled me.  We came back right to the place we started;  we were all the different when we returned.

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Marinating on a Mid-Week Teacher Rally in Raleigh

It’s been a week since over 20,000 professional educators flooded the streets of Raleigh to visit the NC legislature on its opening session, which lasted a whopping 15 minutes before shutting down for the day.

respect

Many of those educators, who had taken the day off to do so, at times under the vilification of those same elected officials, were perturbed by what seemed to be a disrespectful slap in the face.  To be fair, I suppose if people were going to chant in the gallery, not much was going to be done on the floor that day.

Many teachers immediately began to propose and discuss the idea of continuing a shut down of schools, forced by mass absenteeism.  After all, the logic went, isn’t this how West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona got the attention of their elected officials.

That gambit went nowhere.  The jury is still out on what good that would have done, especially since NCAE, the body ostensibly behind the “Rally for Respect”, stood outside the buildings as teachers streamed to the front side of the building at 3:00 reminding them to “Remember in November.”

For most of the teachers to whom I’ve spoken, this seems a milquetoast response at best.  Are elections important?  Sure.  But if all we did last week was to energize ourselves for an election six months away, many teachers will feel our goals were small, our momentum wasted.

As such, to be brief, I’ve come up with three main takeaways from last week.  I hope that they will spur dialogue amongst the professional education community as we decide where we are going from here.

Platitudes are nice, Resistance isn’t futile, but dialogue is necessary.

One of my frustrations based on my current residence is that my elected reps at both the State at Federal level are in uncontested Democratic seats.  “But Mark,” the Devil advocates, “wouldn’t you claim that Democrats are the friends of teachers, and voting for Republicans is against your professional interests?”

In many cases, I probably would, but this comes with two worrisome points.

Because my elected representatives are uncontested Democrats, it would be easy for them to provide lip service to the teachers without actually doing something.  Given that both NC Houses have a veto-proof SuperMajorities, they might even claim that there is nothing they can do.  This is not acceptable.  Last week, this article claimed how education funding was stripped from poor NE counties.  The Republicans schemed; The Dems held a dance party.  I love that my Democratic reps have my back.  I want to know what they are doing, and we need them to be doing something.

On Tuesday, the Reps on the first floor were extremely cordial.  Some put out donuts and cheese trays.  They thanked us for our effort.  But of the Dems to whom I spoke, Rep. Cunningham was the only one with whom I was able to discuss nuts and bolts of reforms we were looking for in the budget.  Just because you have a Democratic Rep or Senator, you can’t let them slide with empty compliments and “thank you for your service.”  We need to be in conversation with them about our needs so that they know the importance and details of our demands, so that they can help craft real solutions to actual problems.

As for Republicans, I teach in a school in a Republican district, and had one of my most productive discussions with Sen. Dan Bishop.  “Productive” may seem a strange word, as we didn’t produce anything.  But I appreciate the candor with which Sen. Bishop spoke and I appreciate the intellectual challenges he laid before me.  As a person who argued in good faith, I have a clearer idea what ideas he supports, what theories support those beliefs.

Many will see working with the Republicans as a futile road, turning to outright resistance as the only tactic.  I’m not going to claim that I changed Sen. Bishop’s mind on anything, but after speaking with him, I gained a clearer understanding of the Republican Party’s philosophy for funding education in the state.  Too often as teachers, we think we can post pictures of moldy classrooms, stories of coffee-addled late nights grading papers, or bemoan that we work second and third jobs and the opposition will kowtow under the weight of our righteousness, forgetting that they have an entire system of thought and philosophy that undergirds their beliefs. It is a frequent fault of democratic voters to believe that outrage is enough to win the day.  It’s not.  We need to engage our reps not just to convince them, but also to know where they stand.  Dialogue isn’t always about compromise.  Dialogue is also how we learn who can be an ally to better education and who will be an impediment, to refine our political goals, which leads to…

Refine and Articulate what you want

For all the selflessness many teachers display, teachers often get a reputation as being a whiny profession.  In my estimation, it’s not altogether unearned.  While conditions are often desperate, we often neglect that the needs of schools are funded in conjunction with many other needs the government funds.  In order to get what we want, we need to be able to articulate our goals, seem them in the context of other budgetary choices, analyze them in the context of political motivations, and craft winning arguments for the public.

Look, critical thinking skills are what we claim we provide for the public.  And it may be that some would rather we didn’t, as a populace that lacks critical thinking skills is so much more tractable, easily manipulated by simple arguments like “the average pay in NC has risen in the last five years.”  We must use those same skills to hone our arguments and our activism.

For instance, in talking with Sen. Bishop and hearing other Republicans, it would seem that we could both argue that we want well-paid teachers, competitive with other states so that the quality of education continues to allow North Carolina to flourish.  Where we often have a disagreement is how to execute that goal.  Over the course of the day, it became more and more clear that the GOP strategy for this goal is to encourage young teachers to stay a while but not incentivize a teacher to make a career.  After all, health retirement benefits are cut for employees hired after 2021 and the pay scale weighs toward the younger teachers.

At one level, you can’t deny the logic of this approach.  Salaries are expensive, but pensions and retirement benefits are even more so.  I was hired in the state in 1999 when all of this was on the table.  Younger teachers are not so fortunate.  Many will face the choice of leaving the state.  When asked directly about that possibility, Sen. Jeff Tarte (I think) shrugged and agreed: “That’s a choice you’ll have to make.”

It’s easy to demonize this response, but it is grounded in an economic reality that this is a cheaper choice.  What we have to convince our representatives and the populace as a whole is that just because it is the cheapest choice, it is not the best choice in the long run.  We need to run arguments that lay bare what educating on the cheap will do in the long term.

Ultimately we need these arguments ready and available.  We need them for our reps.  We need them for our neighbors.  When we talk to our friends, our families, our representatives, we are ambassadors for this cause.  We can’t be sloppy in engaging the potential votes in November, because our votes alone will not be enough to bring change.

Which brings us to the third observation…

Political Operatives, Great and Small, Classroom Teachers need them All…

It is no understatement that the GOP Supermajority is the largest impediment to progress on these issues for teachers.  To date, this blog has been intentionally apolitical, and I know that by making this statement I risk alienating anyone who considers themselves conservative or independent.  I am not saying this as a ringing endorsement of Democrats.  However, when one party holds a veto-proof majority in a state where the Governor has limited power to begin with, it limits the amount of horse-trading that can bring compromise in the political sphere.

To that end, teachers must be aware of how politics work and how education policy is made.  Teachers who believe that they can simply march to Raleigh with a red shirt and yell for a morning, go to Chuck’s for a burger, and go home—mischief managed—are deluding themselves.  The best possible outcome for last week is that professional educators become more engaged political on levels large and small.  This means becoming educated about issues and engaging in difficult discussions.

I was somewhat disheartened when I stood in line for an Italian Ice around 3:45, straining to hear someone garbling from the stage at the end of the street when a petitioner came up to ask us to sign off against gerrymandered districts and a teacher had to ask “What’s gerrymandering?”  Perhaps it was late in the day and I was tired and cranky, but I have to admit that this took the wind out of my sails.  But in reflection, there are political issues on which I am ignorant—such as which issues are local vs. state—on which I need to inform myself to improve my own advocacy.

rally #!

What makes political advocacy for education particularly challenging in this state is the Rural/Urban split.  Urban Districts like CMS, Wake, Guilford, Chapel Hill-Carrboro…we are all likely to have more local support from our districts.  More rural districts were not.  As evidenced by the school systems cancelled last week, political advocacy is more likely to come from large Urban centers.  Where Guilford had a chanting mob vowing to vote one rep out and CMS had at least 50-100 on the green in the afternoon, many smaller districts labored with one lone representative if that.  And yet, the reps from these districts wield as much power.

With a dynamic such as this, it may seem easy for a guy like Rep. Brody to simply disdain the protests as “outsiders.”  We laughed and mocked and make cute memes with #thuglife, but in the end, we still have to convince voters in more rural counties that the cause of teachers is the cause of the future of education, not just in the large urban districts, but in the smaller, cash strapped districts as well.

Thoreau Dreams of Teacher Protests

I’ve sat in this mental place mulling the choice.  It came across my Facebook feed in an almost clandestine way:

 NC teachers are planning a walk-out on May 16, the first day of the new legislative session.

The day of my students’ AP Language exam.  In the past, this simply means a day where my students would be off-campus at CPCC and I would have a couple of free periods to catch-up on grading Grad Papers.  But last year, the planets shifted and we began testing in the Penthouse Suite of the new LA, which means…at times…I’m floating to other classrooms. But more importantly, it offered me the opportunity to see my students before they tested.  To look them in the eye. To wish them good luck. To give them a high five, fist bump, sharpened pencil. To shepherd the straggler back to the fold. After a year in which they have patiently endured my teaching, it is, to be blunt, a rewarding personal interaction: a culmination of a year’s work.

So, I hesitated to buy in, hesitated to join the political fight that had been brewing since the recession, since Gorman slashed CMS.  My students were prepared for the test or not by this point, but I wanted to look them in the eye once more, to show them that I was there for them, one last time, in their corner.

But the pull of the political moment spoke to me.  I reflected on the year of work together. Teaching isn’t just putting texts in front of your students, mindless exercises of reading comprehension.  Words have meaning, we argue, and our actions are judged against these words by teens with a keen nose for hypocrisy. In a class where we often dig deep into questions of morality, education, and the good life, I had to wonder how my students would interpret my choice.  It kept leading me back to one basic question.

henry-david-thoreau-shirt-squareWhat Would Thoreau Do?

In American Lit, Thoreau is my jam, and all my kids know it.  I regale them with how I wooed my now-wife by road tripping to the promised land on a small pond.  More than any author, the Concord Curmudgeon divided the classroom into rancorous dissent. I vigorously taught “Civil Disobedience this year: many got on board with my devotion, but just as many critiqued him as meaningless, overly-idealistic, and a victim of his own piety.  Nevertheless if we are going to evaluate the value of an American political protest, there is really no better place to start than the words penned by Thoreau almost two centuries ago.

First, it should be noted, that Thoreau reviled the idea that he have ever had the obligation to petition the government to make his life better.  A forerunner of minimalists worldwide, Thoreau strove to live so simply as to have the freedom to thumb his nose at politicians with impunity. Even as he excoriated the government for allowing his taxes to support slavery and a questionable war in Mexico, his solution was to withdraw from the government, not to petition its redress, hoping that by his example, others would do likewise, forcing the government to come around to his principled point of view by means of starving the beast.  Though Thoreau often employed himself as an educator, whoring out his labor to the government, relying on its bureaucracy and absurdity for his bread and beans would be about as anti-Walden as you could get.

By this reading, the idea of driving to the state capital to agitate the legislature to give me a raise and improve my working conditions and—most importantly—improve the educational conditions of my students, would seem the absolute antithesis of self-reliant living.  He says, “If a man is thought-free, fancy-free, imagination-free, that which is not never for a long time appearing to be to him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally interrupt him.”  It would seem the most Thoreau-ean thing to do would be resign my post, hoping the “genius of my logic” would inspire my peers and students to do likewise until the government capitulates.

Perhaps I’m not that free yet.  Unlike Thoreau, I’m not free of obligations.  No public educator is. My wife and I talk about how even one day disrupts our tightly planned syllabi.  My colleagues and I debated whether it was acceptable to sacrifice instructional time. We justify our importance by our obligations, to our families, to the families of our students, to the students themselves.  Being a teacher, my by nature, puts me in an entangled web of obligations, some that motivate me to speak up, others that motivate me to keep my nose to the grindstone and keep working in relative obscurity.

And of course, there were the kids who I had supported all year long, waiting for that last word of encouragement, an obligation I vacate by not showing up to school.

But on this I returned to Thoreau, and his indictment to the political class and the majority of his peers.  Politicians, he claims, are cowardly in their inability to make strong stances and advance society. Like the Sophists of ancient Greece, they take stands only when they are politically expedient.  Doing nothing but the status quo, or—even worse—succumbing to the political corruption of large-money interest in politics, becomes easy if the population does nothing but gripe to their friends, never taking any action to let the politician know where they stand.  While he finds the politician contemptable, he saves his ire for his neighbors, who talk a good game but do little to support that opinion. “What good is it to have an opinion and possess it merely?”

Throughout the last 10 years since the recession hit, we have grumbled and griped about the condition of education.  Once, in a fit of anger, I even penned a letter to the editor of the local paper. It got me some pats on the back, but changed little.  It was a scary time to be a teacher as all schools were instructed to shed positions. The experienced double-dippers, the young and promising, the contentious rabble-rousers were all trimmed.  The economy was tanking, we were worried about our jobs, we soldiered on doing more and more with less and less, grumbling to each other as the class sizes rose, the testing cabal grew, the incentives for young intelligent people to join the profession dwindled, the transfer of public funds to private interests slowly stole money from the public schools.

 

Thoreau’s biggest gripe with his neighbors was that they would bluster all day—“see that the government should try to send me to Mexico”—and yet would resist the easy actions to let the government know where they stood.  He argued that one man standing in his convictions was a revolutionary act, one that could potentially spur others and start a revolution. We are at a point where the political time is turning, and perhaps the zeitgeist for recovering those losses—for ourselves, our students, and our society—is upon us.  Certainly, there is no time like the present, as teachers, principals, superintendents, and even some legislatures are observing strikes across the country, beginning to speak with a unified voice, showing solidarity for change, for putting muscle to our message, for making our politicians prove that their fawning over educators is more than just lip service, that their degradation of public educators—the very people of the front line of the future of our society, the people they want to arm, they people they claim will make the most difference—is unjust and counterproductive to a harmonious and healthy society.

As for my AP students, we are fortunate.  Unlike some systems that threatened to punish their teachers, whose politicians called them “thugs” for their fight, our system and school worked together to re-prioritize and accommodate.  It’s amazing what we do. So, I get the privilege to look my students in the eye next Wednesday as they take the test they’ve worked so hard for.  Hopefully when they do, they’ll know that they are more than a number, that my effort for them had weight beyond a test score, that my words were more than an empty reading exercise, that I have shown them in a crucial time for potential change how to build “action from principle”, a simple act Thoreau deemed “revolutionary” and capable of “changing things and relations.”  It is a small act, but one if we all take is the mover of mountains, a small but important step in building a better society.

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.

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.