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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All love to Nicole

All health and light that is coming to her.

May she become the Buddha she is destined to be.

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

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

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

Finally, an imprecation erupted from deep within.

Around the Corner

A game that hopes for signposts

Hiking though the void.

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

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Marinating on a Mid-Week Teacher Rally in Raleigh

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

respect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refine and Articulate what you want

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us to the third observation…

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

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

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

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

rally #!

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

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

The Sylvan Sanctuary

A church owns some land in my neighborhood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That will probably mean a parking lot.

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

Sanctuary Sunday and Mid-Week Pilgrimage

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Dancing on the Edge of the Event Horizon

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

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

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

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

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

 https://youtu.be/MoLkabPK3YU

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

Down Dog to Child’s Pose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past the Point of Nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

This is what democracy looks like

The sky over Charlotte as I drove home Thursday evening was a molten pastiche of pinks, oranges, golden rays behind clouds, and gray.  On many nights, I might marvel at the beauty, but tonight I think of how Emerson claimed that nature reflects our heart back to us.  My head has been swirling with thoughts all day, and my heart has been heavy.  The sky seems an appropriate blanket of sorrow and confusion for this night.

Five nights ago, the sun set on my city as I danced among orange-clad drummers at the Festival of India.  Tonight, I watch those same streets clogged with riot police, protesters, tear gas. Chaos of a different order.

Fortunately in the world of social media, everyone seems to have an easy solution.  I probably should have put myself in a media sequester.  But watching events unfold, I found myself in conversations with half a dozen people and curating the stream of opinions online.  And while some of my friends’ opinions were predictable, I also watched people who often agree on most political issues arguing about the community reaction to the recent police shooting.

Yup.  Everyone’s got a solution.  If people would just ________, everything would be cool.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not going to be that easy this time, that it’s not going to be easy for a while.  

These are the voices I hear in conversation over this unrest.  My own rhetorical voice tells me that “unrest” is too euphemistic, but I fail to codify it otherwise.  So, I turn to another voice for help.  John Steinbeck.  Writing about the swirling winds and currents that brought the Great Depression, he watched the downtrodden, driven off their land,  turn “I” into “We”, the revolutionary step.  “…if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive.”  Throw BLM and these protests into that list.  Street protests and civil unrest is often the “after” of a chain of events, not the beginning.

I’m not trying to absolve anyone’s moral culpability for violence, but watching these protests from the comfort of my couch, flipping from the news to the Bosox and back, I feel that all the armchair quarterbacks suggesting “what they ought to do or not do” could use some of Steinbeck’s insight.  One policeman shooting a citizen would not bring people into the street.  But put into the larger web events, and we have people compelled to take the streets to stand up for their lives.  Social media and video technology have allowed what were once the “isolated incidents” of a “few bad apples” to aggregate into data.  People read this narrative and integrate their own experiences, their own run-ins with the cops, their own frustrations.  Keith Lamont Scott dies at the hands of police.  People stand in solidarity with each other.  People clash.  These things are results, not causes.

It’s easy to ignore these webs of causality, these warning signs, sometimes, especially when we don’t want to see them.  Every time a new story fits this narrative of police mistreatment of African Americans, we dissect the facts of the case to judge culpability.  We evaluate the prior record of the victim to see if they deserved to die.  We evaluate statistics to see if discrimination and judgment the victims claim is true.  I’m all for truth and empirical data, but it doesn’t always tell the story of the experience of individuals, frustrating experiences that when ignored fester and boil over.  The facts are still in dispute in this case.  The ambiguity fuels the frustration, the mistrust.  And even if the facts absolve the police, we are likely to see more protests, more civil disobedience.  And again, people will blandly ask if we can’t just all get along, move along.

But the signals have been there.  A few weeks ago, I kept thinking the Colin Kaepernick story was a media grab for ratings, a non-issue, a sensationalist celebrity debate meant to draw eyeballs and mouse clicks.  But now I look at how that story became about the honor of soldiers and the patriotic obligations of football players and whether millionaires have the right to stand up for the underprivileged and whether or not you can criticize America and still have the right to stay here.  But it ignored what Kaepernick and activists have been trying to articulate:  there is discontent with justice that is not always impartial and color-blind in this country, no matter how much we want it to be, no matter how much we want there to be peace without having to deal with the underlying causes of the disruption.  And when we refuse to deal with people when they protest calmly and rationally, we invite them to turn up the volume so they can be heard.

Many people in the hope for a cessation of turmoil and unrest have invoked MLK. He wouldn’t want this, they say.  He would want people to protest peacefully, they say.  It’s a nice thought, but it is inaccurate, as Clemson Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika accurately noted to Coach Dabo Sweeny when he invoked MLK over the Kaepernick issue.  While King did advocate non-violent protest, he did not do so without qualification.  “Obnoxious negative peace” is where people simply accept injustice in the name of order, simply the absence of tension.  “Positive peace”, however, respects the dignity of all humans, built on the principles of justice.  Simply wishing for order without justice, without real change in our heads, our hearts, our social inequities is only asking for the problems–the distrust, the violence–to rear its head and the next catalyzing death.  As King smartly predicted, failing to deal with injustice can boil over into violence.

Late Wednesday night, I was unable to pull away from CNN in the center of my city.  It’s two nights later and I’m still glued.  Late Wednesday night, William Barber came on with Anderson Cooper.  Barber, who has been instrumental in Moral Mondays, rattled of a litany of cases he was pursuing, instances of injustice broad and specific that have fed the distrust many Aftican Americans feel.  Later, the street reporter caught a public defender who had been on the front lines all night  and tried to pin him down to condemn the violence.  He refused to give a simple answer.  He could not separate the actions of the protesters from the actions of the police.  He was there to protest, too, “to keep my brothers safe”, he said, a statement with so many layers.  

He spoke with a clarity of vision I could not match.  As I watched late into the night–the news, the running superficial commentary–I wanted to say or do something meaningful, but A quick Facebook post seemed too shallow to hold the complexity of my confusion.  So, I tried to sleep with all my these cloudy impressions.  The next morning, I wanted to curl up with my laptop and write and write until I figured out this swirl of thoughts weighing on my heart.  I wasn’t going uptown.  What was I going to do to bring positive peace in my community?

But duty called before I had an answer.  I had to be there for my students, my school.  I had to engage with people, teenagers and adults.  By six I was out the door, but lessons about Descartes, Tim Burton, and argumentative writing seemed hollow, not quick enough, pertinent enough for the needs of my community.  In the brief spaces of contemplation, I’ve spent the rest of the week trying to figure it out.

I teach King’s “Letter” every year, usually in context of other essayists who discuss issues of justice.  A couple of weeks ago, before Charlotte erupted in protest, some colleagues and I started kicking around some new ideas with these texts in the context of this national conversation.  Somehow, I feel a new urgency rising within me, an impulse that I feel will inform my teaching and my interaction with with my students for some time.  For better or worse, my city has been awakened in a way it can no longer ignore.  Sitting back, lobbing abstract ideas on social media or yelling at the television are insufficient for the changes we need.  These are not abstract ideas.  These are the issues we still grapple with, the ideals we should still strive for, the problems we must solve to have that “positive peace” that respects justice for all.  And if we want positive peace, hopefully my talents can be used to help give that change a push, even if I don’t know what that looks like today.

At the end of his sometimes ranting poem “America“, Ginsberg, after calling out the litany of injustice he saw, claimed patriotically and calmly “I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”  So, this morning, maybe in this blog post–where I usually try to remain as apolitical as possible–I’m putting my white shoulder to the wheel.  It’s inconclusive.  It doesn’t solve anything.  But words are the work I know and use to try to push us in the right direction.  I don’t know what else that work will be, but we all have a responsibility in bending our community to a more just place for all to live.  This is what democracy looks like.

1 down, 179 to go…

Monday’s got me in a weird place…an out-of-body experience.  I look at my hand, moving across the page in a foreign way.  What are you doing?  What is this strange motion you are under taking?

Oh.  Right.  Grading student essays.  I almost forgot how this felt.

After stepping off a plane two weeks ago and moving right into a three-day PD workshop, I haven’t really had time for the typical bemoaning of the end of summer.  No ritualistic last day celebrations.  No symbolic funerals for the summer sun.  Just the quick passing of one phase of life for another.

This is probably best for me.  Teachers can be downright cranky about the end of the summer, worse than the students sometimes.  At least students can claim the excuse of compulsion.  Legal or parental, they will argue, this is not their choice.  The argument from necessity.

Teachers try this trick sometimes.  We have to go back.  And sure, in contrast to a whirlwind vacation, honeymoons, or even lying on the couch binging Bob’s Burgers, rising before the ass-crack of dawn, putting on “real shoes”, and being conversant and authoritative over teenagers can seem something of a drudgery.   So, up we rise, if somewhat resignedly, to face our destiny.  Sometimes, you just gotta get up to make the doughnuts–our own argument from necessity.

These were the type of arguments that used to piss Sartre off before he became a full-blown Marxist.  Acting from “bad faith”.  Acting like you have no choice.  Making excuses so you can bemoan you life.  What a slow, sludging march the grave.  I know.  Sounds depressing.  But too many days where you get up and go to work because you have to eventually leads to a life that you meet begrudgingly, morning after morning.

But I can’t say I don’t embrace necessity at some point.  When I was twenty, I had accepted a NC Teaching Fellows (May it Rest in Peace) to school, but was still unsure that this is the path my life would take.  And somewhere in a dark night, after drinking entirely too much coffee, after reading entirely too much 17th century British Literature, I knew that my life would somehow serve in the vein of transmitting knowledge to the younger generation.

At different points in my life, I’ve fought this idea that this was my place in life.  Other friends have left the profession for more lucrative or at least less stressful occupations.  What can seem like daunting futility in trying to reach an unwilling audience can breed a special spark of soul-crushing nihilism.  Sometimes the flashy cars you’ll never drive and the jet-set life you’ll never live becomes more confrontational than you’d like.  And if you’ve put in the years, the thought of jumping ship and starting a career anew sounds like a poor financial decision on top of a daunting existential one.

So, resignation becomes a weird form of gallows humor, a sarcastic protection against the struggle.  Teachers know how many years they have to retirement on command (13, in case you’re wondering).  We can get cagey against change because the old and familiar is so…well…old and familiar.   After all, we’ve got all the lessons down, so why do more work?

For me, however, I suppose I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where teaching still fulfills my intellectual curiosity.  Sunday morning before the first day of school, I lay down in yoga class, and the last thoughts on my mind before it emptied for a bit were all the strands of thought and idea that I had for my class this year, brimming with possibility, busy  but not anxious.   That evening, I took my kayak out to paddle on the waters in a bit of solitude.  Not because it was the “last day of summer”, but I wanted some time and silence to prepare my mind for the next day.  When Monday rolled around, I woke excitedly.  (I can’t say I’ll still be doing that in November, or even next week for that matter).  And by 8:00, I thought about what I was going to get to talk about for the next four hours.  Theorizing about democracy in Philosophy.  Analyzing Speilberg in film.  Discussing rhetoric and speech in English.  God, I’m such a dork, but this sounded exciting to me at 9 in the morning.  Say what you will about this job, but it is rarely monotonous.

 

I don’t want to get preachy and say we should relish our opportunities or that our day is what we make of it or attitude makes all the difference.  Because that’s the kind of stuff that makes up cheesy affirmational yoga blogs, the kind of talk that makes people want to punch you in the grill, especially if you pull it before they’ve had their morning coffee.  But for all the crappy back to school ads, for all the late sleeping in the middle of the week that I won’t see until next summer, for all the blog posts postponed two weeks and completed only after two hours of grading essays, I’m trying to embrace the ups and downs of the struggle, in all its absurd glory.  At the least embracing this life in all its foibles is worth a good chuckle at least once a day.

Here’s to the new year, fellow teachers:  11 down, 169 to go.

 

 

Surfing the Seas of PD

It’s a bike challenge.  District-wide PD is at a school close enough to my house that I can pedal there in under 15 minutes.  But predictably, I’m still late, and I scoot in near the back corner a little sweaty to an already-begun presentation on writing revision.

Yay.

The axiom “teachers are the worst students” is proven true every year.  There’s a faux TED banner in the front lobby, but there’s one notable difference here:  TED bans tech use in the lecture hall.  Not here.  From my perch in the back, almost everyone has at least one screen going, maybe two.  We all think we’ve got lots to do, and could all justify individual work over being here.  But the book looks good.  It has good resources and ideas.  I’m going to try to be good.  Try to pay attention.  Try to learn something I can use in my classroom.

But the ladies behind me are having a riveting discussion, re-capping word-for-word a conversation someone had in church last week.  So, I’ve got the presenter through the left ear and “So I told her…” through the right.  The struggle to pay attention has begun.

The presenter is reading a children’s book about Pablo Neruda, while a friend sends me a Sporcle game.  I’m drowning.  Throw me a life jacket.  I’m trying to suppress my snarky urge, but it’s threatening to overwhelm me.  I decide that blogging this one out might be my saving grace.  If everyone else can multi-task, why can’t I?  If this is about writing revision, is blogging about it meta-learning?  I grasping for a raft anywhere I can.

9:05:  We’re into some pop-neuro-biology:  playing music, being nice to your students, lighting candles release dopamine.  Think of ways to release dopamine in your classroom.  That could get dangerous.

9:10:  First clever teaching acronym of the day.  Think about the TOE.  T is for talk.  I’ll tell you about the other toes later.  Just stick your toe in the water.

9:15:  I give into the Sporcle urge and fail.  I can only name one RedSox 3rd Baseman from the last decade.  My right ear is a PowerSchool conversation and student gossip.  So, at least it’s kind of work.  But Little Pablo has been put to bed; there’s some playing with student stereotypes and boilerplate inspiration.

9:20:  The waves of cynicism subside as I begin to see some value.  I start to get into this.  I start seeing how this can fill a need in my classroom.  My kids often fall down at revising sentences.  I mean…revising sentences often befuddles them.  I stop blogging and start using my phone to shoot these seeds of beautiful lessons to my colleagues.  This is called “back channeling”.  Instead of snarky ways to release dopamine, my brain is creating masterful syntactical mini-lessons.

9:40 Attrition has begun.  I see the first person leave with all their gear.  In my right ear, somebody’s on Prozac.  I think it’s a dog…or at least a child who goes through a bag of food every three weeks.  I don’t know.  I’ve started closing my right ear to amazing efficacy, and one of my Park homies sends an authoritative “Shh” and stank eye across the bow.  The harpies lower their cackles to a grating whisper.

9:50:  We have a quiet free write based on a passage the speaker has read.  He’s done some neat things with books.  I write about invisibility.  I’m not sure I can see where I’m going with this, but I let it roll with the current, not looking for a reason to hate this.

10:00: Break 15 minutes.  Lots of people pick up all their stuff and swim off under the cover of temporary exodus.  I walk and get sunshine.  Streams of teachers to the parking lot like rivers to the ocean.​


This school has great rain barrels and gardens.  I walk around and meet a guy who used to teach with me, now here.  Learn lots just by talking for five minutes or so.


10:20ish?:  I’m really bad at coming back from break on time.  But by the time I dive back in, it’s clear how many people have jumped ship.  Thankfully, the harpies behind my backpack  are among them.  I sit down and we’re re-arranging syntax on our pre-break freewrite.  This is a pretty good activity, and I feel like my treading water all day, resisting the urge to bail, to swim away, to hide in a well of sarcasm has been rewarded by some boon.  I start recording lesson ideas and collaborating on anti-plagiarism seminars at the same time.

I don’t want to act like I’m walking on water, but the room has become more productive.  People volunteer.  Somehow, everyone who couldn’t make it through seems to have left, and the people who have bobbed along this long have begun to see some value.  This is no small feat.  Most teachers see early year PD with a mix of dread and revulsion, and can often react with grudging contempt or outright rebellion.  Lots of times, you can’t blame them: presenters often affix new buzzwords to old strategies presenting the new and improved wheel.  And in our system, there have been epic fails–the presenter who led off to an auditorium full of English teachers with “we’re not teaching novels ’cause no one reads them” comes to mind.  

Teachers aren’t perfect in PD, either.  This cynicism–often well-placed–can make us miss some valuable tools as well. Luckily, mine didn’t capsize my boat, and I made it to safe port after all.

11:20:  He ends early.  No sense in drawing this out.  The crowd is generally satisfied.  I find some former colleagues and catch up–the only time I see some of them all year.  My buddy and I walk out, bullshitting about Ryan Lochte and how his idiocy is  likely to drown out his success in the pool.  Pedal home.  Surprise the dogs.  A good morning that included District Wide PD?  It’s a miracle.