Not with a splash but with a whimper…

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

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

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

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

Like this:

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

Lightning flashed,

Sparks shower.

In one blink of your eyes

You have missed seeing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:  What is the nature of the Buddha?

A: This flax weighs 3 pounds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Book Review: The Tao of Wu

There are many easy stereotypes one could assign to the 208 pages of The Tao of Wu: a celebrity autobiography, with inherent narcissism masked as gratitude; a tale of the hip-hop life, replete with salacious stories of crime, drugs, and empty justifications; a new-age reinterpretation of Taoism, barely skimming the surface to make the temporal sound more meaningful than it actually is.

Thankfully, these stereotypes have no staying power.  What remains in the 208 pages are a thoughtful, spiritual journey through the life of RZA, founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan.  Part autobiography, part meditation–the book offers so much more than a voyeurism into the life of the famous.  It offers wide glimpses into a deep and flowing mind, moving like a powerful river through its many ruminations.

Much like the Biblical pursuit of Wisdom once co-opted by T.E. Lawrence, The book organizes around Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  Not traditionally a chapter, each pillar reveals a bit of RZA’s story, from a young child inspired by the storytelling of Uncle Hollis, who set him on the spiritual path, to his epiphany with hip hop through the founding of the Wu-Tang Clan, the Clan’s meteoric success, and his darker periods following the deaths of his mother and his friend and Clan-mate Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

Each Pillar, however, is told more like a religious parable.  It is here where the book transcends the stereotypical.  From a very young age, it becomes obvious that RZA’s mind is one that seeks the spiritual truth.  He begins with the Old and New Testament Bible stories from his North Carolina family, but he is quickly baptized in the theology of Mathematics and the 5% taught by the Nation of Islam.  Not limited by these, a young RZA finds himself drunkenly stumbling into an all-night movie theater that plays Kung Fu movies, where he first witnesses Enter the Wu-Tang,  which opens his eyes to the world of martial arts and the Eastern philosophies of Buddhism and Taoism.  Here, he begins a life long obsession with Martial Arts, in film and in practice, and the lessons taught within.  He even finds ways to work in his understanding of the game of chess as a philosophy.  As the narrative of RZA’s life progresses, his accumulated spiritual learning is always present.  Additionally within each section, musings on philosophy, famous sutras, brief aphorisms, religious parables, and instructions on prayers and meditations support the building of each Pillar.

As such, when RZA speaks of coming back from Ohio, walking the streets of Staten Island, and having the founding vision of starting the Clan, he doesn’t come off as some pretentious music star building his own legacy; he comes of as a man who has walked pursuing truth, imperfectly as we all do, and has been blessed by a gift bestowed upon him.  In this moment, the tale is refreshing.  Having studied, he knows many lessons that would lead him on a more righteous path.  But at several points as a headstrong youth, he loses his way.  Looking back, he is able to find an understanding in his missteps that evolve into his lifelong walk.  And as the walk turns from the metaphoric to the literal, he sees the vision of the forming of the Wu-Tang Clan, a path so clear, he says, that he actually saved Method Man’s life when he calls him across the street to tell his plan and a robbery takes the place at the store where Mr. Meth was headed.  In the hands of an egotistical star, this might come off as a trite “I knew I was blessed with a destiny” phrase; with RZA, however, his honest and thoughtful tale of falling in and out of The Way makes the epiphany not only plausible but humbly accepted.

As the narrative shifts to the success of the Wu-Tang Clan, the spirituality takes a subtle shift to the background as RZA’s knowledge of music, mixing, business, and commentary on the state of hip-hop and rap comes to the fore.  RZA becomes a man obsessed with fulfilling his vision, exercising control over every aspect of the process, holding as philosophical about engineering and recording as he does about the divine.  Yet all the while, the spiritual remains, weaving itself into his observations as a way to both explain success and provide succor in the darkest hours.

In short, I loved reading this book.  I found myself not wanting to put it down, even when I had other work to do.  I will pay it the highest compliment in these two ways.

First, as a musing on the spiritual life, I frequently found inspiration in this.  Yes, a story of a man who rose from humble beginnings to found the most influential rap collective of the 90s (and some would argue of all time) is inspiring in the traditional forms of perseverance and dedication.  But RZA’s wide and diverse body of knowledge is impressive.  Often when I read in the morning, I crave something of a more spiritual nature to begin my day.  RZA’s The Tao of Wu fit that bill, often setting my mind with a small koan to process in my waking hours.

This is not to say that I always agreed with his spiritual philosophies.  I found his statements on numerology and the meanings of alphabetics to be pedantic at times.  Towards the end of the book, he delves into historical analysis that I found to be trite.  However, as a book that explores the spiritual path, as a man who has sought knowledge and wisdom as a guide through the twists and and turns of life, RZA’s musings represent a man who honestly seeks, not one who preaches.  Spiritual truths are often ineffable truths and best not expressed in words, which belies the format of a book.  And yet, his candor and openness in these moments are not preachy, but rather that of a man who has sought and seen and wishes to open his knowledge to others.  It’s not often that a music star can turn humble and philosophical, but this rare gem is an excellent read for the music fan and the spiritually minded alike.

Gratitude–The Cardinal Virtue

It’s the week of Thanksgiving. In earlier days, it would be pro forma for teachers to make students identify something for which they are thankful. But I teach high school, and that is so beneath us.

So admittedly, I was caught a bit off guard when class came to a close on Monday and one of my students asked me what I was thankful for.

“He’s probably thankful for his dogs,” chimed in another. That was not even remotely true. That morning, I had spent an extra 25 minutes cleaning up the putrid excretions of one of my pets, so bad that I closed her up in the kitchen in case she had a repeat performance while I toiled to buy her food. She did not disappoint, and the return home bought me another half-hour cleaning spots and mopping the floor. Gratitude, was not for the canines.

“I’m thankful that we had a good lesson today.”

The inquiring student looked at me as if I had three heads, as if something so insignificant as a lesson was beneath the possible level of “Thanksgiving” or “gratitude.” Being thankful is for family, for turkey, for time off from school. To be thankful for school is a contradiction to the word. You can’t be thankful for school, can you?

I mean, I suppose you can pull out the “poor people in third world countries would kill to have that opportunity” jive that your parents pull on you when you won’t eat your peas. But otherwise, no. School is a grueling toil to be borne and endured through gritted teeth, a test of our collective endurance.

At least, that’s the vibe they’ve been getting lately. I had my students write a paper where critiquing the educational system was one of their options. And many chose the options with gusto. With varying levels of success, they characterized the experience not as one being led out of the light, as the original etymology might suggest, but as a constant grinding and numbing of the intellect to be able to endure the rigmarole of endless droning teachers, worksheets, PowerPoint notes. They wake up early to be here and stay late to be prepared.

Granted, some of this is easily discredited as sour grapes, like the girl I have to remind every day to get off her phone who somehow can’t believe how incompetent her teachers are. Regardless, there’s enough legitimate beef to stock a steakhouse, and even the more nuanced and well-considered arguments had plenty to say about the monotony of their learning experience.

I’ve been taking it to heart, to be honest. Despite, the carefully constructed Prezis, despite the study to be on top of discussion, to be ready for all questions, I’m not batting 1.000 when it comes to creative, engaging lessons. Some weeks, I may barely hit above the Mendoza line. And sometimes I feel like I’ve created a good , lesson only to watch it wither on the vine of a Friday afternoon, starved of engagement by a grueling week.

To take this personally is to invite despair. Sure, I strive to be a really good teacher. I’m intrinsically motivated to do so. I’d like a bonus, don’t get me wrong, but I know if it gets too boring things have to change. But I also have to maintain mental health. Despite all our planning, a lesson can be a dud. I ponder this as we read the Bhagvad-Gita for class, where Krishna repeatedly reminds Arjuna of the futility of tying hope for outcomes to actions. Even in the best of days, we never know truly how much good our teaching does unless a student tells us some years down the road, and even then, they likely remember the most innocuous parts of class.

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So on this day, I rolled the dice. I tried something silly. I took them outside, I had them speed date each other as philosophical perspectives. And for whatever reason, the smiled as they talked about philosophy, and they smiled as they came back into the classroom. Chalk one up in the win column.

I suppose I would like my students to be grateful for good lessons as well. I suppose I could implore them logically, comparing this lesson to other classes, where they watched movies with substitutes, or hypothetical lessons where I did drone in lecture. But as I ran this morning and drank in the beauty of the sunshine, I realized the futility here. Asking someone to experience gratitude by comparing it to the less fortunate—you know, telling kids that someone in the third world would love to have their spinach—is no way to teach gratitude.

More importantly, it’s no way to cultivate gratitude in the self. Today, I will eat with my family, with abundant food and access to clean drinking. I am grateful, but not because there are others who are lonely, hungry, or thirsty. Today, I ran five miles in the sunshine. I am grateful, but not because there are others who cannot run, nor because yesterday rained. Such thinking only leads to a conditional logical proof that gratitude should be felt, a thinking that is likely to induce guilt for not being grateful. True gratitude is a lens we cultivate by which to see the world. If my gratitude is only contingent on the relative misfortune of others, it is a thinking that will lead me to pride, that I deserve this joy. It will lead to a cessation of the gratitude when conditions change. It will invariably lead to building my own self-worth only at the expense of others, a path that will lead only to envy and discontent.

True gratitude is best cultivated with the humility that knows that we are neither deserving of our joy or our suffering, and that it is our good fortune to experience life. “In all things, give thanks,” said Paul to the Thessalonians, an imperative much easier to execute in the calm than in the storm. That humility is best created in a compassion for others, that this misfortune for others is not an opportunity to enhance our own self-worth.

And so, I cannot begrudge my students if they turn their noses at my gratitude over the small and the insignificant—a sunny day, a lesson well-executed. But I have found that gratitude is an exercise built on small things, in daily ritual, to keep the heart humble and open to all the possibility that lies ahead. And for that, I am thankful for all of them, whether I can ever logically convince them or not.

Memento Mori: Not just for Latin class anymore.

Time is a river, the resistless flow of all created things. One thing no sooner comes in sight than it is hurried past and another is borne along.

-Marcus Aurelius

 

 

Sometimes when we are fortunate, someone comes along and tells us the exact right thing at the exact right time. We may be enduring something that makes us feel isolated, carrying a burden all by ourselves, and that one person arrives with their perfect, prescient knowledge and compassion. Recent events in my classroom have made me reflect on one such perfect point in my life.

 

For me, it was my cousin Gary. He and his wife Ashley were about to depart for home after my father’s funeral. As Nicole and I exchanged our good-byes, he told me that there would be many days to come where grief would hit me at strange times, and I was better to let them overwhelm me. Indeed, I have found his words to be true, and often find this grief to be the sweet shadow of the love that existed in life, now transferred to the memories of my father.

 

This memory arose a month ago in the unnerving quiet of my classroom on a timed prompt day, and I’ve been grasping for the right words to nourish this seed germinating within me, struggling to strike the balance between the hope I intend and the limitations of reality that stand in its way, struggling for ways to push through morbidity—incongruous with the school year’s close—that this subject presents to the light of love I hope to expose.

 

The seed began its germination on a sleepy Friday afternoon. Me, classroom tyrant that I am, had scheduled another AP timed writing. On days like this, I try to be industrious: I work while they work; those essays won’t grade themselves. But like the students, my attention often wanders to frivolity: What am I doing this weekend? I wonder if the new Godzilla movie will be any good? On this day, however, something about the spring sunlight seeping through the slits in my dusty, broken blinds led my attention elsewhere to a deeper meditation.

 

My gaze fell on one of my students, one who had a parent die during the course of the school year. I remembered how a few months ago, she had missed school, and the best I could do when she returned was to tell her to take her time making up her work.

 

Then my attention lazily moved across the room, and I saw another student whose parent was slowly dying. He had missed some school but had bravely tried to be a good student and soldier through. Again, the best I could do was to tell him to not worry about his assignments as much.

 

One had lost a parent earlier in the year.  One knew he was going to lose one in the immediate future.  In both cases, these high achieving, college-bound students worked diligently to maintain their academic standing. And the best I could offer was to reassure them it was okay for them to be “off-task” for a while to grieve.

 

I sat and watched them scribble away. I doubted they had ever talked to each other about it, though I felt that being teenagers with grief, they could probably related to each other in a unique way. I wondered what would happen if I just stopped them right there, pulled them both aside, and sent them out in the quad to discuss how they were doing, to discuss their experience and process their grief in common. I’m sure it would be a much more edifying experience than one more timed prompt before the AP test.

 

Of course, they would never do this, and I would probably be considered derelict for encouraging it.  In so many ways, schools work to instill a “Keep Calm and Carry On” attitude.  Even as a teacher, I find myself in a quandary.  Telling a kid that it’s okay if his work’s a bit late because his father died seems cold, functional, and perfunctory, but doing more–opening the human connection–almost seems like an invasion of privacy, especially when that kid is working so hard to keep his shit together so that he can still do well in my class.  Indeed, I only know of these students because their parents contact their counselors, who then contact me.  This says nothing of the students whose family members have died and I only discover it through word of mouth or confessional writing months later.

 

No, school is a place where we implicitly encourage students to push through, to keep a stiff upper lip, and never let anyone know what trouble lies beneath our social masks.  There is good reason for this, of course.  Teachers learn quickly to deflect all sob stories that are excuses for late homework, missed classes, and poor behavior.  “Your (boss/professor/generic future authority figure) won’t put up with that, and neither will I.” is a version of the refrain, as we must train students for life in the “real world,” where no one really gives a shit about your excuses.

 

Terrence McKenna once wrote that the birth of the existential man—characterized by isolation, guilt, and anxiety—was the logical outcome of our emphasis on rational individualism and the cost of neglecting our common humanity and connections to the natural world. In school, we are taught that all obstacles can be surmounted by enough effort. Indeed, it is often the function of school in modern liberal democracy to give the students this very opportunity.

 

But when this natural grief is just another obstacle to be suffered in isolation, the students successful at the school game learn to push through.  They must, after all.  For all our lip-service for collaborative education, success in school is ultimately an extremely individualistic determination.  We tell them from an early age that they can be “anything they want if they just work hard enough in school.”  The hidden part, of course, is ultimately that burden is theirs to bear alone.  And that means you can’t really let a silly little thing like the death of a loved one get in the way of success.

Vanitas by Philippe de Champaigne, 1671.The memento mori is a motif seen in art an literature through thousands of years that reminds us that despite our best efforts, we all return to dust. (Here’s where the morbidity fear comes in; don’t worry—it actually lightens up to the end.) When my students study this phrase in class, no one knows what it is, unless they’ve studied Latin, and even then they can get the words but miss the meaning. It’s no surprise really: our school’s have become a place where we infect our children with the sometimes unspoken but ever present fear that if they don’t take school seriously enough, their life is going to be miserable. The famous stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Tao te Ching, and the book of Ecclesiastes (among many others), would all like to remind you that when you keep in perspective your ultimate mortality and small impact in the grand scale of the universe, such worries are dilatory to any true knowledge or understanding of the universe or what we actually need. But memento mori is just a phrase for Latin class; meditations on mortality are not given space in our modern curriculum. (Unless you have a really cool philosophy teacher, of course.)

 

In this, I imagine a student struggling with both the grief that is natural to the death of a loved one and the anxiety to moved past that grief, lest the demands of school, life, their career path, the golden ladder to success, pass them by, leaving them destined to a third-tier college that will never let them actualize their dreams.  And so, we learn to compartmentalize our grief, putting it aside for the person we feel we need to be, all the while ignoring this natural human state. We perpetuate our ignorance of the memento mori at our own peril, ignoring not only our own needs, but also the amazing opportunity we have to share the wisdom of our own experience to someone who might need a little help when they stumble along the path.