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.

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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.

 

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Harmonics, Yoga, and Happy Hour

There are things that I consciously pack in my backpack: stove, hammock, sleeping bag, food.  And so on.  All the essentials and a few luxuries my back will bear.

But in the packing process, there are other items that make their way into my pack and into the woods.  Subconscious little brain worms.  Books I’ve read.  Conversations I’ve had.  Lessons I’ve taught.  They are there just as real–if hidden–as those bomb-diggity campfire pizzas I created last weekend.  But on the long trails, when there is nothing but time and footsteps, these mind memes rise from the surface from the depths of my sub-conscious pack where they were stuffed last week.

One of those luxurious gems of contemplation is the idea of harmonics and vibration.  Last week in a study of imagery and mood in literature, I proposed this TED talk to my students.  Be forewarned: it’s a bit disorienting, exploring the relationship between sound and brain function.

At any rate, while I was in the woods, I had a lot of time to lay around and listen to the woods.  To some, that sounds really boring, as there seems to not be any sounds at all.  But when you get to the point where you get into that quiet place where you can actually hear the woods, you recognize the rich tapestry of music, a million little symphonies–the water over rocks, the mating calls of frogs and birds, the crack of sticks and leaves underfoot, the wind grazing the leaves in casual passing–repeated in cycle, over and over and over.

Such is a blessed and rare time and place where you breathe this music all day long, waking to a morning yoga and sleeping to a gentle blanket, all set to this natural harmony. One morning, I played with a technique I learned at the Hindu Center one class that uses a vibration of breath, matching that pitch of that vibration and the rhythm of the breath to the woods around me.   The body and spirit–set to the note of this harmony–radiates a palpable wellness of being.  By Monday, the bites and weary legs aside, I felt myself glowing as I approached the car to drive home.

There’s a lot to get to that natural harmony back in the city, where the repitition of tardy bells and the timber of twittering, trebling teenagers tends to  dictate the tunes.  By the end of the week, that harmony seemed a bit more distant.  But Della met me with a CD a student had made for me as a “thank you” for a rec I haven’t even written.  With an early release due to exams, I popped in her eclectic mix of down-tempo electronic, and I elected an afternoon yoga class as opposed to a decent Friday Happy hour like every other sane person.  There, the teacher bookended the class with music, but taught the class without, an option I usually enjoy.  I’ve heard lots of music in the years I’ve taken class, from new-age, froo-froo spiritual to house remixes of the Glee soundtrack.  My former philosophy students wouldn’t be surprised to know that re-mixes of chillstep to Alan Watts has become one of personal faves.  But nothing beats the silence.  Just you and the breath.  Sometimes the absence of sound is just as sweet as the sweetest harmonies.  As Keats said, “Pipes heard are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”

Now it’s Friday evening.  I haven’t put a post on this site in months, but the music and harmony of the woods has resonated something deep within me, and I’m sitting in the backyard, husky at my feet with the sound of incipient summer: the ice cream truck, the neighbors’ music, children up and down the street, and my back yard haven–birds and insects and a soft soundtrack of music a friend made me years ago.  Somehow, the confluence of all things coming together a very happy hour indeed.

 

Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

Thank God for global warming.

It is the season of long shadows, when the sun begins his descent early in the afternoon, turning the world into a shadowy realm only a few hours after the crest of noon.  But unlike most early December days, the sun has been giving out-of-season spring temperatures.

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It was on such a day that we took advantage of the fortuitous weather here in the South.  On a day that would reach a high of 60 degrees (16, to all you centigradians), I drove 50 miles east to meet up with Chuck for a hike through the Uwharries.  Often credited as one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, it lacks the verve and tourist-loving views of the Appalachians, the Andes, or the Rockies.  But what it lacks in postcard-picture vistas, it makes up with seclusion.  After a brief incident with a punctured left tire–and the generous help of a hunter from Tallahassee–we entered the arboreal maze.  For the entirety of the day–9 miles, 5 hours–we would see two humans.

Uwharrie trails are deceptively easy to get lost in.  Good maps seem rare, and landmarks are rarer on what often seems an undifferentiated wander through the woods.  Indeed, aside from wooden signs at intersections and the creek crossing, only a smattering of yellow and white blazes, often blended with the moss and lichen of tree bark, led us through the labyrynth of trees.  Couple this with the dry leaves that covered every inch of the woods, and the hike was something of a guessing game, catching turns at the last second, checking directions on the compass frequently, never keeping eyes off the trail.

Up and down, up and down.  The trail skirted an inland peninsula of well-marked private land, never settling into a flat groove.  Every quick steep ascent paired with a treacherous rock picking descent on unstable leaves.

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By 2:30, we were surprisingly tired and the shadows began to lengthen here in the time of shorter and shorter days.  We began in hushed whispers to consider time and distance and float the possibilities of turning around to make it back before darkness fell.  We checked the map with trepidation as we hadn’t seen any landmarks in quite some time, as we had varying electronic estimates of how far we had come, of how far we had to go.  Generally, we were now moving straight south, which the map said was the right direction.  So we pushed onward, somewhat uncertain of the trail ahead.

***

Anxiety and confusion can reign this time of year.  The stories of people at the poles who suffer crippling depression in the days of perpetual night are well known, but less accepted is how much the creeping days to Winter Solstice can sap those of us in more temperate climes  of our verve as our hemisphere lurches further away from the sun, further and further toward the darkness.  I spend most of my working days inside, and by the time I leave and arrive home, the cold chill of night is biting at my heels, chasing me indoors once more.  The presence of sunlight in my life becomes scarce.

I remember a teacher telling me in high school that the triangle of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years causes more depression, and thinking it must be about the stress of the holidays, the hustle and bustle of buying gifts, planning big meals, and family strife.  But the more I think about it, I think about the darkness that pervades the natural world.  We often look to human causes, but the more we are driven inside by the cold and dark, the more we forget our connection to the natural world and how much sustaining energy we derive from the sun.  In the darker times of year, it can be more difficult to think clearly, to retain energy.  We want to sleep more.  We tend to want to hunker down, huddled next to our individual hearths, guarded against the darkness.

It’s no surprise, I suppose that cultures across time and space have planned holiday celebrations around the Winter Solstice.  In America, we have a conglomerate of the “holiday season” dominated by Christmas, which has itself adopted the traditions of the tree and the yule log from pre-Christian traditions.  The Christian Christmas is of course joined with the more modern materialist feeding frenzy by our modern cult of St. Nick,  but our “holiday season” also encompasses the celebrations of Haunukkah for those of Jewish origin, Kwanzaa for the African American, Festivus for the Seinfeldian, and finally the modern bacchanal known as New Years for all comers.  But the Romans had their Saturnalia.  And even in the Southern Hemisphere, cultures plan celebrations around their Winter Solstice, such as the Matariki of the Maori in New Zealand.  When the days are darkest, these celebrations can form a welcome distraction from the reactions of our bodies to shorter days and scanter sunlight.  Like the animals, we too feel the need to sleep and hibernate, the confusion caused by the long shadows.  Lost in the ritual of ceremony and preparation, we can choose to ignore this natural pull toward sleep and energy preservation, we hold the darkness at bay.

***

By 3:00, Chuck and I finally found the intersection of the trails, which let us know we had about 2 1/2 miles to go.  The beginning of the chill was on the air, and the shadows began to stretch, but we had time to rest by a campsite, even enough to joke about lighting a fire.  Chuck had packed in a couple of beers, so we toasted to the afternoon.

As we settled in, we both admitted the tinge of anxiety we had felt before we got to this clearly marked point in the trail, at the intersection of two trails and a forest road.  The forest is vast an uniform, trees and hills stretching for miles in all directions.  The Uwharries are notoriously easy to get lost in; the darker it got, the more difficult it would be to find our way out.  And unlike the summer, where a night under the stars could be a pleasant respite, getting caught in a December night unprepared could be precarious, sickness inducing, even possibly death.  Although the hike had seemed simple enough at the outset, we had to consider our own frailty against the open night in making decisions for our safety.

Of course, the easiest and safest course of action would have been to not come into the wild, to stay safely at home, and let the brief sunlight take care of itself and forget the darkness in the glow of my modern hearth…a television playing football.  But there is value in facing and embracing the darkness as well.  The Tao claims it is from darkness that all things derive, our primordial womb that gives birth to mystery, to manifestation, to understanding.  And without a knowledge of the darkness, our knowledge of the light is incomplete.  And so, in the days leading to and from the solstice, in the days where shadows are long and light is short, I strive to be outside wandering the woods as much as I can, to grasp every last drop of the sunlight, and to know the lurking shadows.  I find my time sloshing through the trails to be the best method of meeting the impending darkness head on.  Knowing the crest of that anxiety’s break, and then the resulting calm that swims in its wake, I remember that I am a creature of the natural world, beholden to cycles of the natural world, the ebb and flow of light and dark, the tilt of the earth, the change of the seasons.

Chuck and I picked up our packs and began to make our way on the last two miles of the loop.  All was calm and peaceful as the sun began to sink lower in the trees.  Knowing our goal was shortly ahead, we walked leisurely as the shadows continued to lengthen across our path.  Even when Juno took her usual run though the woods chasing some phantom wildlife, we stopped restfully and waited the cycle of her return.  Soon, we were in the car and riding home into the beautiful setting of the sun, back to the home, back to the hearth, under the twinkling dark blanket of night.

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Exodus from Paradise

I didn’t want to write this post.  I didn’t want it to turn out this way.

It started coming together as I was descending a trail into inky darkness, a familiar trail I’ve trod over an over in my life.  It crossed an icy stream barefoot in the middle of the night just to make camp.  It warmed to the thought by a roaring fire where stories of yore traded and cups of nectar drained underneath the stars.  We soon realized it was 2 in the morning by the judgment of a watch, and we laughed at how time had been rendered impotent amongst the trees.

 

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All of these would’ve been story enough to post, to muse meanderingly on the passage of time and my place in the universe.  But alas it was not meant to be.  The morning came.  We broke fast.  We chopped trees and girded our supplies for the cold night to come.  Then, for me and Chuck, it was time to hike for the day.

I’ve stopped carrying separate camera for the last few trips, and for various reasons of convenience, weight, and sheer laziness, I now just throw my smartphone in my backpack.  I used to loathe the idea, as if to go into the woods would sustain the illusion that I could have my own separate Eden, untouched by the dirty fingers of the “real world,” which included any contact through technology.  When I first started camping, lo those many years ago, none of us had them.  Now I’m sure we all have them, even if they stay in our bags.  Mine did on the first night, then came out to take pictures and log miles as we began our trek.

I hadn’t turned Airplane mode on, so over the night, some texts leaked through.  One from Nicole let me know what had been happening in the real world: ISIS attacks in Bagdhad, Beruit, and Paris.  I thought of those I knew in that part of the world, thousands of miles and mental worlds away from this tiny, secluded sylvan wood.  For a moment it seemed momentous, like the threadbare plots of a hundred science fiction films where the protagonists somehow wake to a world vastly different than their own.  For a moment, I thought I should tell everyone.  And then I decided against it, decided that if I could, I would sustain the illusion for the others, who in retrospect may have known and were also working to sustain the illusion for me.

The hike was familiar and beautiful; trails I’ve hiked for close to twenty years now were brand new to Chuck.  Winding stairs carved into rock.  Valley vistas.  Waterfalls.  Fellow friendly hikers trading trail tips.  All seemed unfazed or unfamiliar with the nugget of news I carried with me.  And while I marveled at the beauty, this knowledge often made me wonder how things would be different when we exited this hidden Shangri-La and made our way back to the black-top plains of humanity.

 

Back in that world–the world of politics and literature–the conversations would be different.  The knowledge would be different.  In my film class, we had been watching V for Vendetta.  My students, too young to remember, needed a refresher on the post-9/11 world, and so my mind often trailed back to the days immediately after our country had incurred terrorist attacks fourteen years ago, how people had been shocked by the carnage; how people had seemed lost searching for answers; how people yearned for something, anything to be done; how people felt that the veil had been lifted from their eyes to an entirely new world, as if none of the previous world had mattered.

I knew there would be some of this.  I knew that every time I turned on the television or the radio when I got home that there would be reference to these attacks.  “Since Paris” would become a phrase that gave new gravitas to every item big and small, from love stories to football games to newly initiated military campaigns.  I knew there would be arguments on social media, vitriolic volleys about what should be done next, about who we should bomb to solve this problem so it never happens again.  I knew there would be passive reluctance to discuss these issues in face-to-face conversation, lest angry, heated debate occur.  I knew the news here would be small stories of bravery and exciting stories of minute-by-minute manhunts, everything related to Friday night.

I knew there would be disorientation.  I remembered this clearly from the last time.  It’s easy to buy into the illusion that the world is a safe place, especially if you have the good fortune to live in a first-world country (which probably explained why the world mourns Paris and largely ignores Beruit and Bagdhad).  We go about our days, living our lives in relative peace, so much that we have to remind ourselves that Starbucks running out of Pumpkin Spice Lattes is NOT the worst thing in the world.  And then something traumatic–a natural disaster, a terrorist attack–shakes this illusion, and people clamor for answers, information, action–anything that will make the world make sense again.  In the film V for Vendetta,  the society overreacts to terrorist attacks, ceding power to the government in the hope of ensuring safety and order once again.  It’s not just the terrorists who change the world; it is also the fearful and power-hungry who react in their wake.  And when I mused on this nugget of news long enough that it turned to despair, this fear–hollow as hope–was what cast the darkest shadow: that the world–in light of these new events–would seem so new, shadowy, and strange that we would fall to drastic and destructive overreach, that we would overreact and lose our moorings once again, that I would leave the woods to find a world vastly unrecognizable compared to the one I had left.

Light began to play a funny trick in the valley.  Hiding behind a mountain where Chuck and I were looking for a spur trail, we got cold in the shadows.  We became a bit despairing, and decided to cut the hike short to get back to camp, where it took us a couple of hours to warm by the hearth of the fire our friends had so generously attended.  Again we supped, laughed, drained our cups, traded stories, and rendered time irrelevant as by 8 we were all fighting to stay awake.  We reluctantly slumped from the fire to brave the cold of the night, much colder than the night before.  In the morning we woke to frozen water in bottles and the frantic attempt to generate body heat by packing quickly.

As we exited the trail and got in the car to ride home, I told my fellow travelers what my phone had said, as if I only just found out as I got back in the car.  We talked about it for a bit, then returned to happier memories of the camping experience. Ritualistically, we had our post-trail breakfast, but our favorite Horseshoe Cafe was closed.  So we found another breakfast haunt where the five of us sat in the middle of a dining room surrounded by four televisions, all tuned to CNN, all showing constant video streaming from Friday.  I checked my Facebook feed to find that those I knew in France were safe and every other person’s face was the tri-color.  The televisions continued, looping illusions of constant violence, the same shot of the shocked band over and over, the same shot of mourning Parisians over and over, the same speeches of politicians over and over, offering platitudes and issuing threats.  Between bites of biscuits and pancakes and eggs, we watched the rapid recurrence of images until we had emptied our plates.  Sated, we shook hands in the parking lot.  We’ll have do this again some time.  And we will.  And we will.

 

 

Spiritual Band-Aids and Drive-By Mindfullness

Wednesday was a road trip that almost didn’t happen.  Kristen had proposed it–a mid-week trip to see Sherman Alexie at Virginia Tech.  But as we become more comfortably ensconced in middle age, we all find that our web of responsibilities–jobs and families and sleep–tend to make the road trip much less frequent that it was in our wilder youth.

But of all those who received the offer, three of us pushed through the entanglements and hit the road about 1:00.  Grown-up road trip.  Going to see an author speak.  We small talked about this and that.

“I’m doing the 100 days of gratitude on Facebook,” said Nicole.  This trip would be her Day 4.

“That’s too much pressure for me,” replied Kristen.

Soon 81 climbed the mountain, and Nicole caught her first sight of an endless fall mountain vista: reds, oranges, barns, pumpkin patches, infinite sky–all setting her photographer’s heart aflutter.  The trip flowed as a beautiful stream of day: jokes at the store, wonderful dinner, the surprise of beautiful art, and…or course…Alexie’s storytelling.  So much to be thankful for, most worthy of the Day 4 post.  Soon, we were back on the road.  And miles to go before we sleep.  And miles to go before we sleep.

Philip Taffe's Asuka Passage, on display at VT's Center for the Arts.

Philip Taffe’s Asuka Passage, on display at VT’s Center for the Arts.

By Saturday, I was starting to shake off the effects of that night of small sleep.  Rain sat on the house.  Nicole had met a friend at Costco, so the soft morning was mine.  I eventually found my way to my quiet mat, a serene start to a sleepy Saturday.

Soon, I was out the door to handle the tasks of the day.  Stop 2–the Teeter–was a zoo.  A chaotic frenzy of kids and carts, people testing eggs and thumping melons.  Everyone, it seemed, had decided Saturday morning was the time for groceries.

I stood three-deep in the check-out line and avoided the angst of existence by checking the Facebook feed on my phone.  Nicole had posted Day 7: a morning with a good friend.  I liked and scrolled.  The distraction of Facebook used, I turned to the magazines for amusement, where Oprah promised 10 easy one-minute meditations to make the holidays less stressful.  Ten easy meditations?  How could I resist?  I flipped through the perfume and celebrity ideas and found such zingers as imagining your cranky uncle as a lovable infant and calming oneself in a Christmas party by zoning out to the sounds of the season.  I laughed a smug and self-righteous chuckle, still feeling radiant from my deep time on the mat, thanked the check-out girl, and headed home.

Back at the house, the new REI catalogue arrived, prompting me to “do my first downward dog” of the morning in their brand new Yoga gear.  Mindfulness, meditation, yoga–they’ve all become popular enough to be monetized, repackaged, and sold back to us in various forms.   Buy your way into effortless nirvana, it seems.

I have to check myself, sometimes, the part of me that gets snarky at all this.  In knowing the deep practice I found this morning, REI ads and quick-quipped Oprah meditation tips seem like poor shadows of some “true form” of mindfulness.  Even social media posts seem to be somehow but a quick-patch until we get back in the game of the topsy-turvy world.  The part of me that seeks to engage the deep, unifying spiritual facet of existence lays groundwork to be present and at peace, but it can also make me snort at an REI ad that simply uses the language without getting the meaning.

But like I said, I have to check myself, and was reminded of that this morning.  An honest expression of gratitude is an honest expression of gratitude, whether it’s a face-to-face thank you, a social media post, or–God-forbid–a tortured Sunday morning blog post on the subject.  A moment in mindful thought is a moment of mindful thought, regardless if this is the first our thousandth such moment this day.  It is only this moment.  And even if Oprah is only putting quick meditations on the cover to sell copy, imagining those who vex us as lovable children, or soaking in the beauty of a moment is good and fun practice, regardless of its source.  Worrying about the source or form of this idea, it seems, breeds the same dogmatism that lets established churches look down on iconoclasts as stake-worthy heretics.  Seeing the number of times I’ve been labeled the heretic by others, I should probably seek to curb the urge to label others as heretics.

The road trip was marvelous.  Nicole slept most of the way back, and Kristen and I kept each other awake with banter and snacks.  I hadn’t been on such a random mid-week trip in so long, and I’m not sure when I’ll do it again.  But doing it on that day, stepping out of the normal web of interactions and diving into such a joyous moment of that long evening, left me tired, running on fumes but filled with happiness.  For that moment, even if that moment is not a practice, I am eternally and humbly grateful.

A Healthy Game of Hoops

Fist bumps, Marcus Paige.  Heal quickly.

Fist bumps, Marcus Paige. Heal quickly.

I dragged ass getting out the door to play hoops this morning.  With three no-shows, I was the ninth to hit the gym, so I had to sit while they ran “fours” hoping a tenth would walk through the door.  No worries.  I hadn’t touched the ball in two weeks and my left foot’s still balky from overtraining, so I thought a little more time to warm up was in my best interest all the way around.

A double-play team of baseball seniors came in.

“You playin’ today.”

“Nah, Mr. J.  Goin’ to lift those weights.  Gotta get big.”

“Right on.  Happy Friday.”

“You, too.”

The first game was over, and I got in on the next run.  Not a bad game.  A lay-up in motion.  Some sneaky transition defense.  A no-look, through-the-wickets that would’ve made Marcus Paige proud.

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Next game.  Players change, and now I’m D-ing up a guy who’s much better than me.  Hell, everybody’s much better than me.  I had to face that a couple of years ago when I started playing pick-up after a multi-season hiatus.  And even in my “hey-dey,” I was a streaky shooting, stubborn pick-setting and rebounding player at best.  So, in my return to playing on a weekly basis, I had days where I stunk: I couldn’t catch a pass and I would lose my man getting back on defense.

I still do that sometimes.  Everyone does.  What made it worse? I would beat myself up about it.  About a Friday-morning pick-up game.  Replaying my personal “not Top-10” in my head, I’d kick myself, remembering every turnover, every ugly shot.  And there were lots.

But today, I was feeling all right.  Until he started laying it up on me.  And shooting on me.  And hitting everything on me.  Everything.  Whether he beat me off the dribble or I was in his hip pocket, it was nothing but net, nothing but net.  And of course, this challenge impaired whatever little offense I have, blowing rebound stick-backs, clanging the deep ball off the rim, airing turn-around jumpers.  As days go, it was a clunker of a game.

Still, I don’t linger on that so much anymore.  Too much good life to live to dwell on a bad game.  And a bad game still beats not playing at all.  Plus, I have kids to teach, lives to shape, the future minds of America to edify.  Shower up and the day goes well.  Yummy breakfast and brilliant debate about V for Vendetta with my colleagues, killer observation in class about the post-9/11 implications of the film,and then a good class with quiet timed writings at the end..  I’m on my post as 3rd Period bleeds into Fourth.  2:15 is in my sights.  My former student from the double-play duo comes strutting down the hall, loving senior year, loving life.

“How’d the weights go.”

“Good.  Real good.  Got big.  How was the ball?

“Man, I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, and the guy I was guarding couldn’t miss.”

He shrugs.  “Had days like that before.”

“Yup.  Me too.  Have a good weekend.”

“You, too, Mr. J.”

The Summer of Former Students

In my younger years, I approached public places with ninja-like exactitude and stealth: upon entering the coffee shop or restaurant or grocery store or music festival, I would scan the premises, head on a swivel, quickly seeking to identify potential conflict. Often I would take to wearing a hat slammed low and be sure to bear no identifying insignia so as to maintain a low profile. I always wanted to see them before they saw me, so that I could always control the interaction.

Using these ancient techniques, I was a shadow. My first success came as a student-teacher. Even after a couple of beers with my friends, I spotted one a hundred yards away. She saw me only when I was ready to reveal myself—a sly smile and a hello—and she stood agape, embarrassed that her teacher caught her being unruly in public.

Then there was a time when my wife somehow cajoled me into a blissful Saturday morning at Ikea. I forget what we were looking for—I somehow always do—but I knew it must have been early August, because I found myself in close proximity to not one but TWO of my former students, recently graduated seniors, who were shopping with their entire proud families for dorm furniture. With one path through Ikea, winding through the entire store, you can imagine the level of subterfuge I had to employ to stay beneath the radar, once even lowering my standards so far as to acting like I was interested in a new flower vase for the living room.

Other times I have been less successful in maintaining my cover, stoking my most paranoid fears: the public embarrassment, the loss of my privacy to simply walk free in the world. Once I had just left a bar on Friday afternoon happy hour when an angry “Mr. Jenkins” bellowed across the street. When tone led to recognition—a student from year one, who I threw out of class about once a week—I actually thought he wanted to throw down. Luckily, he was friendly, doing well, surprisingly happy to see me. Another more surreal incident happened in the aisle of a grocery store, where a former student stood in shock, pointing and shouting at me. “I know you!” he exclaimed. “I know you!” Others began to put down their Corn Flakes and watch the spectacle—reminiscent of the Madison Square Garden scene in Coming to America. But the student couldn’t remember my name, so he kept repeating himself, and then I realized that this could end very badly if, people thought his flashback were for something more traumatic than a weekly grammar quiz. “It’s me,” I whispered. “Mr. Jenkins. I taught you in 2nd period 9th grade English five or six years ago.” And I walked my basket to the front and hurriedly left the amused public display.

(Sorry about the crappy audio.  It was the only file I could find.)

Age and progress have tempered this paranoia. I used to guard the privacy religiously, but so much has changed since I first entered a classroom. For one, I’m older and am less worried about students actually wanting to hang out with me and be my friend. More importantly, however, is rise of social media. Though I once swore I would never broach that wall, I’m now connected with scores of former students.   I get to see pictures of them graduating and having kids. I see them making asses of themselves. I see them open, both intelligent and witty and willfully misinformed; and sometimes they even share things with me saying, “I thought of you when I saw this,” which always warms the heart. Even if it is only a digital connection, they are no longer static memories; they are growing dynamically into people, and I still get to see them change every day.

But more importantly, I suppose, is that I’m just getting to the point where I’ve taught enough people in this city—at two different large schools—that I’m not really surprised when I run into people I’ve taught before. If I had any reservation about this phenomenon, this summer has made me far less touchy on the subject. My wife and I have decided to spend most of our summer at home, doing work and saving money, which means that I’m going about a pretty normal routine in the city. And these days it seems like there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t stop somewhere and see someone who once occupied a desk in my classroom. Everywhere I go, they are unavoidable. They are either working out at the gym or working there. They are working at the grocery store, the bookstore, the bakery, the coffee shop, the camping store, the bar. They are everywhere.

The summer of former students touched off early, before school was even out. A couple of my cousins were passing through town for a family reunion, where I took them to a street festival in the uptown part of the city. We took a break in a local park to play cornhole when I heard my name across the park. I remembered his name, and knew that he must have recently graduated college. And as he was in the midst of a wedding celebration, he seemed to be more of the spirit than I was. So we chatted and departed with smiles. I don’t remember all their names, however. There was one who ran the snack bar at the gym whose name I couldn’t remember, nor could he remember mine, as he called me “Mr. Teacher.” That worked in my favor though. His gratitude for my education—as well as his profuse apologies for being out of kale and bananas—scored a breakfast of a smoothie and egg wrap for free.

Many of these encounters have been this memorable, this wonderful, this edifying. The student who talked maps with me before I went on a hiking trip. The student who I saw just as she was about to blow this town and leave for college. The student who was just wandering through the bookstore and gave me good book recommendations.

Most of the encounters have been a bit more pedestrian, however. And while feeling loved and useful in public is nice, it is the everyday encounter that has given me pause to think. Sometimes, we don’t even talk. Sometimes I see somebody walking a hundred feet away and I get the premonition that I know them . Sometimes, I just catch someone looking at me in that “I know that guy” way, and I probably am returning the favor. Sometimes, it’s a polite wave across the coffee shop or a “How are you doing?” in the checkout line at the grocery store.

Most of my friends—former students or otherwise—know I tend to overthink things, and I’ve been grappling with this Summer of Former Students for some type of cohesive meaning, something I can take back into the classroom to improve my practice, or even deepen my understanding of the human condition. And there have been lots of little glimpses: the ephemeral nature of the teacher/student relationship, the empathy to imagine my students as actual people who exist in a universe outside cliché’ academic conversations, a critical re-evaluation of how important or influential 90 days worth of language or philosophical instruction can be in the grand scheme of things, the knowledge that my identity as a former instructor an evaluator can make someone feel like they’re being judged, being evaluated, all over again…like I’m judging their grammar or they have to justify their life choices.

Which of course, they don’t. School will start tomorrow. I spent most of today…a Saturday…in my classroom getting ready for Monday morning. On the way home I stopped at Earth Fare to get some dinner, and there was another one, behind the lunch counter. It had been close to ten years since our paths had last crossed. Timed had kept on moving, and we had both been changing. An interaction that had been so structured, so intense, had diffused in the waves of time, changing as we both encounter new moments daily. We caught up on how we had changed, then I headed home. Summer is almost over for me, and time for me keeps rolling along, into a classroom with 170 new faces that will enter and exit and go out into the world, 170 new bundles of aspirations and anxieties for whom my guidance and instruction is but one step in the path they walk, one influence of many. And perhaps if the wind breaks right and we are fortunate, some of us will cross paths again in a way that we can both enjoy, fondly remembering the past but also enjoying the wonder of the new and unique spot in time in which we find ourselves.

Water, Pregnant with Meaning

The creek is bloated and swollen this morning. After the gluttonous revelries of food and fireworks found their way to bed, a storm blew in through the night, layering a blanket of thick moisture on the earth. With the exception of one Hank Hill who fights his wet lawn this morning, the neighborhood sleeps. I rise late and take Juno on a promised run.

All is quiet in the morning mist. I’ve promised myself to take it slow this morning, on a two-week break to rest from the last race, I’m trying to ease back into training for another one in a month, and I want to hear my breath and feel my body as it eases back into this routine. No rushing. No racing. Just a slow, steady pace to feel the joints and muscles move. The morning is perfect. The world is asleep after shooting stars into the night. Except for on couple and their dog, who I meet at a tree broken in last night’s storm, the greenway is mine.

Near the ¾ mark, I catch a glimpse of the creek down to my right. It is thick as a peanut butter pudding, barely moving if at all, filled with the overflow of the rain, a ponderous puddle in what had been a nearly dry bed as recently as a few days ago. It weighs on me—this water—in the creek bed, on the grass, on my skin, in the air.

Taoism relies heavily on water as a metaphor, and the command “Be like water” is one I remember hitting me with such ponderous weight when I was a carefree 20 year old first picking up these dusty tomes of Chinese philosophy. All of the sudden, being near water was never the same, and in each of my many camping and kayaking and rafting experiences, at some point, a pondering of that metaphor and all the meaning it entailed—to be as water—came full force.

It’s not that weird, after all. Our species has been seeing meaning for ourselves in the natural world since we first developed language. Even in the New Testament, Jesus asks his disciples to “consider the lilies” as a way to contemplate their impermanence and the vanity of clinging to worldly needs.  In this story, Jesus tells his disciples exactly what the metaphor means.

For water, the metaphor is so complex, a web of conceptual meanings in which we compare ourselves to water without any guidance of which path is the correct. It is impermanent. It is always changing, as Heraclitus’ famous line “You never step in the same river twice” elucidates. It moves to the lowest point. It is flexible yet powerful.  Both the easiest substance to break yet the most powerful in motion, it is both weak and strong.

It is easy to get wrapped up observing water as a spiritual experience, and for anyone with a transcendental streak knows, any time in nature can prove the same point. But even this spiritualization of nature has its limits. I was recently listening to a lecture by the late Alan Watts who talked of this in the Buddhist tradition. There, the strike of lightning is often metaphor for existence: Here and gone in a flash. Like pondering water or mountains or trees, pondering lightening in this way allows us to understand something deeper about the nature of our lives. But Watts claims that monks on the path to enlightenment would only reach it when they could once again see lightening and see it only as lightning, not the metaphor their spiritual teaching had built on top of it. While the natural world can be instructive in teaching these spiritual insights, seeing them only as symbols for the insights keeps us from seeing things as they are.

I had been thinking about Watts’ lecture a lot in the last couple of weeks, this idea that the epiphany of lightening (or water) simply rolls into the self, is not forgotten, but is not the only thing we see when we see the world. If we only see the metaphor, the spiritual message we seek actually hinders us from seeing the world as it is.

In the case of water, whether I remember the metaphor, or whether running beside a swollen creek reminds me to try to embody this, I am like water. We all are, whether we want to be or not. Physically, we are biologically composed of water to a great extent, giving ourselves many of the same physical properties.  Metaphysically, we are all ever-changing, never the same river twice. The trick in Taoism, it seems, is that you…as a part of the natural world…are always in a larger harmony with the world, whether you are aware of it or not. Water simply moves where it needs to go. Being aware of it may make the harmony more useful or pleasant, but often storms come and fill the creek and the water will move more slowly than at other times.

But even here, I am looking in the water and only seeing my own reflection, a reflection easily distorted by a pebble tossed, a gust of wind, or the jump of a fish. In that, I am still not seeing the water, but only myself in it. This, too, is instructive. At brief points I see the water. At others, I see my own reflection, distorted by light and movement, or even here by the lapse of time and memory an hour after the run is complete. Struggling to see or remember the water would be just as fool hardy as wrestling the lighting for meaning.  That water is gone, down the stream far from where it was when I observed it.

All of the sudden, I find myself very, very thirsty.

The Sound of Heads Exploding All Over the Internet

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Summer vacation has given me more time to peruse social media than is probably healthy for any human being.  But for someone who humors himself at trying to step back and marvel at the bizarre the carnival that is our human existence, the twists and turns or the American political climate over the last week has been nothing short of mesmerizing.  It would be easy for me to sit back and laugh dismissively at those whose heads are exploding across the internet this week, but the truth is I’ve been sucked into the vortex of not a few Facebook arguments carrying water for my argument, trying valiantly–or so I thought–to prove my side the best.

For some, the flag, Obamacare, and Gay Marriage now being…just…marriage, may feel like a sucker punch in the solar plexus, and the interwebs have been alight with vitriol, frustration, and coping mechanisms on how to get along in this topsy-turvy world.  Nowhere was point driven home more than when on Friday night, Nic and I went to a local park to scout a photo shoot.  What seemed a rehearsal dinner occupied one of the pavilions with lights and revelry, but as a younger gentleman helped an older gentleman restock the soiree with a cooler of beers, they lamented together: “What’s the world coming to this week?”

On the other hand, there are those who may see this week as a winning streak of sorts, to stand bestraddled over their vanquished foes, sneering at their logically fallacious arguments as being rolled under the tide of history.

Of course, this contrast is convenient.  There are those who buck the predictable pattern, who bemoan the drop of the Confederate Stars and Bars and still congratulate their rainbow-clad brothers and sisters on their newly-gained legal rights.  But such nuances are few and far between, especially on the internet, and specifically social media, where posts are the equivalent of shouts, reasoned discussions–if they ever occur–quickly devolve into rhetorical wrestling matches, and people threaten to end friendships over which article you posted on your newsfeed.  You’re either on my team or you’re an idiot.

So it goes.

Yesterday morning, however, the rain began to cool the heat of the week, and I found myself scrolling down my Facebook feed, posts from people I love and admire and cherish.  And when these ideologically polarizing decisions decisions came down, we may as well have been on two different continents.  Yet I see in all of us an impulse both noble and damnable–the desire to ensure that the world that is be in accordance with the world that we think should be.

I’m not going to be so hippie-ish to suggest that deep down we all want to the world to be a better place.  But we know when things anger us, disgust us, or cause us moral indignation, and often–though we try to use logic–these can be extremely emotional reactions.  Moreover, the scope and reach of our logic can be limited by the boundaries of our own experience, understanding, and empathy.  And whether we found ourselves as “winners” or “losers” in the ever-marching goal of wishing the world to conform to our moral vision–divinely inspired or not–it seems we are all guided by the same impulses and limitations.

So, when the dust settles on this past couple of weeks in the political world, when these issues won’t be in the eye of the social media maelstrom, and all people go back to posting pictures of their kids and dogs and dinners and vacations, what will we all have gained from this?  What kind of world will we have moved toward?  My fear is we won’t really even care, and that impulse to do the good won’t be piqued again until the next big issue rises–as it always does.  Maybe this is just part of the ebb and flow of interaction online.  But if we’re going to give into this impulse, I want to make it more than just a knee-jerk reaction.  I want to work toward a world where we don’t let divides on vexing political issues turn us into permanent enemies.  After all, if love truly wins, doesn’t that stretch to neighbor and “enemy” alike?  Let this not be love in a condescending “bless their ignorant heart” or “I love you but I’m praying for you” kind of way, but rather in a way that looks at the other as similarly imperfect to ourselves–a reflection of our own impulses and limitations–and in that way perfectly deserving of on honest and open compassion.

New Trails, New Thoughts

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…

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I found my morning peace running the trails with Juno at Reedy Creek Nature Preserve this morning.  I’ve been in a crunch to grade lots and lots of research papers, and it was nice to move outside in the spring morning sun.

I’ve never run here before, though it’s a scant 15 minutes drive.  As such, I found myself running blind, not sure which trail was always the right one.

Luckily, it’s not so big that I was easily lost.  The vast expanse of twists, turns, and potential trails on which the mind can wander, however, is far more infinite.  And the more I read my students’ research papers, the more I become aware of the multiple paths we are lured to pursue in the desire for some ambiguous self-actualization: meditation will improve your focus, better sleep will improve your health, caring about animal experiments will make you a more moral person.

I find this infinite prism of possibility reflected on my Facebook feed sometimes…so many ideas to explore, so many possible ways to engage myself through different threads: colleagues post ideas to improve my teaching, former students post pictures of their overseas trips, friends post political articles begging me to engage and debate.

Not to mention the galleries upon galleries of cat pics.

At times it can be overwhelming.  There’s only so much of any of us, and if we have the yen to engage our minds, we live in a rich time where there is more stimulus than our elders could’ve ever dreamed.  And when it gets a bit much, the easiest reaction seems to be to completely disengage.

As I turn right right on the Big Oak trail, I can’t deny this is enticing, but not a long-term solution for anyone who lives in the modern world.  So–of course–I think of an ancient philosopher to fit the bill.  Taoist writer Chuang Tzu wrote extensively about the concept of “the pivot.”  Taoists often espouse the idea of moving like water without prejudgement or discernment, a concept that frustrates those of us who consider ourselves goal-oriented people.  The pivot is something of a solution.  It commands that we approach all situations without prejudgement and cultivate the discernment to move in the right direction at the right time.  Like a quick turn on the trail that happens without premeditation, the pivot knows all possibilities and selects the right one for the current situation.

The drawback of this knowledge, of knowing all possibilities, is the mind often lingers on the outcome of choices not made.  Harvard psychologist Barry Schwartz expounds on the painful regret often associated with opportunity costs here.

As I run further into the woods, I reach another intersection, and I chuckle as I think of my 9th grade English teacher, Ms. Morris, who told us the story of how she was in a college class discussing Frost’s “The Road not Taken.”  Full of verve, she said she gave her interpretation of the life-affirming possibilities of taking the right path.  Her professor–grave and older, no doubt–chided her that the poem was about the sigh, the worry about the choice left behind.  Frost has been loosely quoted as saying “Sometimes, a poem about the woods is just a poem about the woods.”  The pivot would say these are all possibilities.  Each one is there for the use at the right moment.

For me, a run in the woods has given me some direction, something to muse on this blog and publish, something better than grading papers, something to do while my broken pinky dries.

And that has made all the difference.