Down the Highways of the Old Confederacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tribe Stumbles on Unmarked Trails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Love Letter to my Wife on Thoreau’s Birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Sanctuary Sunday and Mid-Week Pilgrimage

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

The Arrival of Choices

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

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

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

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

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

arrival alien ship

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year’s Resolutions:  The Paradox of Intention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing on the Edge of the Event Horizon

Math and Science people don’t always like us Humanities people, taking their objective scientific laws and converting them into subjective ambiguous metaphors.  But in a pre-Thanksgiving warm-up, we decided to bring the tribes together–Physics and Philosophy–to see if we could find some common ground exploring the infinite minutiae of space and time.

Black holes.  That’s what sucked me in.  Gravity consuming.  Time dialating.  There’s so much of the normal confluence of our everyday existence that they turn on its head.  A student asks Mr. Shoaf why light is lost, since it has no mass and is therefore immune to gravity.  “It bends space-time,”‘he says.  “Imagine a bowling ball falling into the sheet of space-time.  It pulls everything down.  So photons follow the curvature of space.”

Science people and their metaphors.  Poor photons.  Creatures of light, still incapable of escapable of keeping their trajectory out of the black hole.  A student of mine asks Mr. Shoaf what this means for free will.  In the philosophy class, The Physics Master is appropriately philosophical:  analyzing the multiple possibilities of the answer, hedging a committed yes or no, laying out how the proposition is both true and false, dancing on the edge of the event horizon.

It’s a beautiful place to be, skating that very line between grave and certain philosophical positions.  You’re floating through time and space, believing you’re in complete control, the possibility that you’re not begins to exert its gravitational pull, bending your universe.  You can let yourself get sucked through that hole.  Unlike real black holes, you won’t die, shredded by the unfathomable force it exerts upon you, but you will come out the other side a bit different, a bit out of step with your contemporaries.  Time has slowed for you.  The thought has changed you.  As you yield to this contemplation, the rest of the world has continued at its normal rapid pace while you have deepened experience in your still body.

Thoreau, himself an intellectual time traveller, mused this possibility in one of my favorite parables in Walden, the artist from the city of Kouroo.  He posed the idea that we can get lost in contemplation or in the pursuit of some perfection and time slows down for us.  While the world wastes away around us, we exist out of time.  On the surface, it sounds like a magic elixir for staving the ravages for mortality.  But as Thoreau discovered, such timelessness has its cost: you find yourself somewhat isolated from the community.  In a very real sense, it’s the surprise Cooper in Interstellar finds as he eventually returns to communication with his family to find they have all lived full lives, reproduced and grown old without him–the other side of the travel through the black hole of timeless pursuit.  Thoreau venerated this as non-conformity, which is great when you choose it, but it could just as easily be labeled as a crippling isolation if you’re nothing more than a photon getting tossed around by the curvature of space.

 https://youtu.be/MoLkabPK3YU

 

 

Thanksgiving break thankfully came right after this intense lesson, so as I took long walks down the greenway with my dogs, I watched the leaves fall, the seasons slowly rotate, and mused about black holes, physical and metaphorical.  Don’t go for the easy interpretation:  this is not where this blog slides into depression.  Rather, I mused on the time-warping nature of seeking a goal or idea at the exclusion of all others.  How there are endeavors in life that we commit ourselves to wholeheartedly, and then come out the other side recognizing how much the world has gone on without us as we have followed our single minded pursuits.  Sometimes, these are obligations, like when I go into a paper grading hole for three days to finish up a set of essays I need to return.  Some of these are thrust upon people, like when a loved one becomes ill out of nowhere and we are forced to re-order our lives to participate in their care.  These seem out of our choice.  But some of these are pursuits we willingly enjoy, like learning an instrument, planning a wedding or vacation, or exploring a new hobby.  At least on those, we are choosing to move in a new direction, intentionally re-ordering our life, becoming who we more want to be?  But even as I followed that line of logic down the black rabbit hole, I ran into a personal conundrum as  I found myself agreeing with David Brooks.  Even as I look at the pursuits I want to enjoy–deeper companionship with my wife, with my friends and family, improving my middling guitar skills, furthering my yoga practice, writing more, pursuing higher education–I wonder how much I’m setting sail on a new uncharted course of self-exploration and how much I’m following the sheet into the bowling ball.  In either case, I ponder the opportunity costs.  I wonder once I follow those pursuits and I come up for air on the other side, how will the universe have followed its own course as I have been pulled into my own  personal black holes.

Somewhere on my mat at my favorite Saturday morning yoga class, this all comes rushing back on me.  It’s difficult to find balance, and my upper body and lower body seem out of harmony.  But I try to stay faithful to the process, though I find my muscles quivering at times.    I step back from the gravitational pull that black holes have been exercising on my imagination.  Backwards I pull to the lip of the Event Horizon, the millisecond before dive is made.  Here, on the rim of possibility, I see I have perhaps been staring into the abyss for a bit too long.  Here on the rim, I feel the pull of possibility on one way, and the awareness of being in the world in the other.  Can one develop the strength to skate over the surface, to look  into the abyss but daintily dance on the edge?  Here on the edge is the birth of the ecstatic shivering.  I find this in my practice this morning.  I come with my will and push myself to the limit of my will: forced to yield to limitations of body, I yield, only to find a deeper place of understanding, this gentle oscillation of the will and the not-will opening new windows.  As the Tao says, know the male but hold to the female.

Soon, class is almost over.  The woman on the mat next to me utters a gentle imprecations:  “my mother muscles are shivering.”  She has pushed herself to the limit.  Our society venerates it as the athlete pushes themselves just to the edge of breaking.  Einstein talks about pursuing cosmic wonder in the name of science to the point of spiritual edification.  In our common parlance, we hear this cropping up in the exhortations to “find balance” but this seems insufficient, especially in a society that seems to put such a premium on identity based on what we achieve, so much so that we blindly dive down rabbit holes unconsciously to fulfill these needs, treating our limitations as mere suggestions that keep us from having it all.  Often this is more juggling than balancing, trying to keep all our balls in the air and not letting any of them fall, we touch them just enough to keep them afloat, working to counteract gravity at the last possible second.  But sometimes, attuning our will to the curvature of space might yield us more than a simple juggling and balancing circus act could ever do.

It’s a week later on Saturday morning as I wrap this meditation up.  The musing on black holes that captured my imagination last week seems far in my rearview mirror, though I have to admit that by throwing myself pell-mell into a week of work that included grading, lesson planning, meetings, student conferences, and talent show practice, the universe has continued its workings while I’ve tended to my little plot of existence.  But as I take one last look at this meditation, I consider the strength necessary to pull one’s conscious mind out of its pursuit and will to be aware of the universe around it.  Perhaps pursuing its will while maintaing this awareness is the greatest trick of all, exercising control while yielding to the lack of it.  Simultaneously in and out of time.  Dancing on the edge of the Event Horizon.

 

Down Dog to Child’s Pose

Disclaimer:  This blog post will not cure your post election hangover, whatever flavor it may be.
October was the cruelest month.  I’m pretty sure someone more famous than myself may argue April, but he never had traverse the dry, parched rockbeds of my transition from summer to fall:  riots in the streets of my beloved city, the discomfort of a classroom move, the chasing of post-Matthew storm damage and renovations, all complicating the normal rigor of grading essays and writing college recs, distracting me enough to miss a race day registration.  Was there some mirth and merriment in the month?  The cider and bluegrass fest says “Of course”, but there were enough days of getting up an plunking myself in PJs at the kitchen table to scribble cryptic notes to my students that I began to feel like I was measuring out my life in writing critiques.  I barely dared to eat a peach, let alone disturb the universe.  Pair that with the punch-drunk feeling of perpetual political ads in this clusterfuck of an election, and I was starting to feel like quite the hollow man.

 But there is always is hope at the passing of deadlines.  As the month ended, grades submitted and recs uploaded, a brief breath of respite emerged.  While there are always essays to grade and lessons to plan, the weekend before a three day week interrupted by Election Day and Veterans Day seemed an apt day to carve out time and space to have a day of no plans, to wake and let the day take me where it would.

Nic had abdicated the house early for an all-day photo workshop, so the house was serenely still as I came to consciousness, recognizing the fur-bellied husky curled up in a ball beside me.  Slowly, I rolled from bed.  I found a book I had been putting off–“Drumming on the Edge of Magic”, Mickey Hart’s memoir/study into ethnomusicology.  I let myself get lost in the words–evolution of percussion, musings on rhythm–and a warm cup of tea for a good hour before finding my way to the red yoga mat in our library.

Well, that’s one use for it.  Atticus calls it his bed, so whenever I get into my practice, he keeps a close eye on me.  At times, he can be an active participant if he’s feeling frisky.  But today, his stomach was playing a percussion of its own, so he was content to watch my morning practice with a leery eye.

Etymologically, yoga derives from the idea of a “joining”, “a yoking”, or “a union.”  In spiritual interpretations, it is a practice of yoking the self to the divine; but in more secular, modern interpretations, it is often described as yoking the mind and the body, which gets loosely rolled in to “being mindful” or “being present.”  In either the case, stilling the mind seems so much easier when you get to sleep in and read leisurely.

At least it would seem so on this morning.  With the house still–one dog happily in the yard, one staring at me half asleep–I fell into an easy breath and flow, moving in gentle rhythm with the lazy Saturday morning.  But as it does sometimes on the mat, the frustrations we try to forget come bubbling through the dry stones of the subconscious.  Without a teacher to call poses, this upswell of past stresses hijacked the rhythm.  The body followed the unloading of the mind, perfectly yoked.  The move.  The grading.  The Red Sox loss.  The recs.  The election.  Jesus, the election.  Quick movement between poses.  Right side warrior.  Left side warrior.  Mountain climber.  Cheetah.

Up dog.  Atticus is agitated by my rapid movement.  He rises from his stupor. Down dog.  He nudges me with his massive head, licks my face, slumps beneath me.  I look down.  Front paws out.  Belly prostrate.  Rear paws folded underneath.  Perfect child pose.

He’ll do this sometimes, and often I’ll step over him and continue.  But today is different.  Today, I am yielding to the day, not carving it to my purposes.  Today, I yield to Atticus in child’s pose.  I lower myself, head beside his, arms outstretched so I can softly give him the scratches he wants so badly.

 Some yoga teachers more experienced than myself in this ancient art have called child’s pose “the hardest pose,” which always befuddled me.  It’s the first pose you learn, the pose of rest and yielding.  But so often, we want to rush through it to get to the crazy stretches, head stands, and spine-pretzling twists.  On Saturday, my head beside the bowling ball head, I found the will to stay unmoving in child’s pose, save for scratching the ears, head, and belly of a downward-lying-Rottweiler.  His breath and mine yoked–a deep, rhythmically contented ujjayi.  He settled down.  I settled down.  Entrainment.  That’s what Mickey Hart called to rhythms synchronizing over time–drums, walking gait, and here breath.  Slow, slow breath.

After what seemed a day floating in the ocean, I back to the down dog and flipped my canine over my canine, still resting softly on his favorite bed below.  My practice flowed softly to carry me through the rest of the day.

With all the chaos that has gone on in the last month and a half of life, lying on the mat with my dog doesn’t solve much.  I won’t even pretend like if we all found a Rottie with whom to share a yoga mat that the world will be a better place.  What I wil say is that the morning of letting things follow their course drew me into a strange but beautiful mediatation, and somehow afterwards the the anxiety that had threatened to overwhelm receeded into the background behind the calm streams of breath washing over the dry stones.

Past the Point of Nostalgia

I knew it was time to go when the posters came down.  Tipping point on a Thursday morning: the day before, stormy with sunshine, the building to myself, Thank You for Smoking on the projector.  The walls are bare.  Nothing left but Taoist blocks and boxes.

Six years in this classroom.  Nine years in this school.  Seventeen years in this career.  Another move, and it’s about time.  In any move you pass the point of nostalgia, where packing and sifting and trashing puts your fingers on items long forgotten, tucked away for rainy days that didn’t need those umbrellas:  half used reams of paper, CD’s of old computer files.  And then at some point, the nostalgia begins a slow fade.  The best memories have been packed or discarded to make room for the new.  The old and familiar becomes colorless white walls, void of meaning, primed for demolition.

If you’ve ever moved, you know the moment I mean.  Moving, like grief, has its stages.  For years, I’ve been hearing they’re tearing this building down–with its glorious windows and thriving cockroach population–and for years I’ve denied it would ever happen.  But the boxes came, and with them a six-month flurry of email instructions contradicting the previous ones.  I put off packing for another day.

But the building is up, and the date to abandon these old walls has come.  There are only these brief hours to stand–as Thoreau once said–on the brink of these two infinities.

Gone to the waste or recycled are old papers I once felt important.  Old student projects. Resources used rarely if at all.  Books that went from workshop to shelf, never to be cracked again.  Two LCD projectors and fracked, fifty-foot cables that I used to drag my classroom’s 20th century ethos into a 21st century digital technology through one dusty, misplaced internet port.

The future is new, clean, technological.  The past is faded bricks, large windows–beautiful light and vistas with horrible energy efficiency.  A two-tiered HVAC that roasts or freezes.  Tall ceilings.  Wood paneled walls.  Ceiling tiles where a yearly battle against the mold is waged.  Cockroaches and dead mice. Pat’s face.   There is no room for these beautiful inefficiencies, in the new and modern world.

As we move into new space, there is an attempt to bring continuity from the old.  Perhaps the water is the same, if just in a different container, one with newer pipes that I’m not so leery to drink from.  There are still lessons on rhetoric, discussions on dualism, viewings of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  There are essays submitted in the old building that will be returned in the new, passed out and cringed over on new and shiny desks, devoid of drawings, ongoing interclass conversations and “Thug Life” etchings.  Behold the old become new.

Inevitably the last purge comes, where the wheat and the chaff, the necessary and extraneous are divided.  A roll of white bulletin board border.  On the surface?  Valuable.  But as I drag it from the recesses of my wardrobe, four adult cockroaches scurry up my arm and shoulder, angry I have disturbed their ancestral home.  I’m fuming.  I’ve lost all  nostalgia.  I want to strike a match and walk away. But I must push through the anger and revulsion. There are more decisions to make.  The cardboard guitar–a gentle exchange among friends, changing hands for over fifteen years.  It goes down with the ship, standing proud stop the bow until the bitter end.  

 And then I find the jewels, tucked away in the top left drawer of my desk.  My secret stash.  A treasure trove of cards and messages from student’s past:  Hannah’s philosophy puns, Shelby’s stick figure cartoons, a grad invitation to the Kumars, Anna’s get well soon from my bout with pneumonia, my department’s sympathy card when Dad died, a newspaper article that Nic submitted after our wedding, thanks and thanks for letters of rec.  So many moments frozen in time, snapshots of full-fledged adults, many now graduates of college or nearly there.  I see them online in their current iterations, but here our interactions, our moments of dynamic learning, sit memorialized.  It’s not the lessons you teach, it’s the people you touch, and who touch you.


Monday. Move in day.  Everything is a flurry.  Old teachers come in to wish one last good buy and marvel at the new ivory tower.  We work all day to make a new conducive environment for our current crop.  Tuesday comes, we meet once more for twenty minutes to give our students new marching orders.  Then the building clears.  One more trip to the governor’s mansion.  There’s no space for Pat in the bright new future.  We say one last glance of good-bye. The building is locked.  The east sun now rises through a hermetically sealed window in my room.  The dawn of a new day, acceptance of the present day, looking oddly askance at the infinities beyond.