The Arrival of Choices

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

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

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

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

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

arrival alien ship

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year’s Resolutions:  The Paradox of Intention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing on the Edge of the Event Horizon

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

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

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

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

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

 https://youtu.be/MoLkabPK3YU

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

Down Dog to Child’s Pose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past the Point of Nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

Epilogue: On our Brexit and Wanderlust

We began our own personal Brexit early on a Monday morning.  Big hugs, thanks for coming, and thanks for having us–all exchanged as the Uber drove to take us from corner of Arlington and Denbigh for the last time.  The corner flat that had been our home for 19 days began to recede in the distance as we made our way through Ealing to Heathrow.

The flight home to the Promised Land was a tale unto itself.  While we were in line to check our luggage, a family queued behind us, and their three year old went into full Linda Blair meltdown mode when their six year old wouldn’t relinquish his suitcase to his little brother’s whim.  “Hate to be on that kid’s flight,” we said.  In London security, I lost a jar of English Mustard and Horseradish respectively.  Apparently, I didn’t figure out they were liquids.  Also, I forgot to switch my knife from my backpack to my suitcase.  So, while I am down one knife, at least they didn’t think I was a terrorist and give me the full cavity search.  

The plane was full, and I hoped to get some sleep, as Nic noted that I was barely awake as I was walking through the airport.  I even began eyeing the full empty row of seats to my left as a crash spot.  But as the doors closed, Nic said, “Ooooh…. Fuuuuuudge.”  It could only be one thing.  The terror slid right in beside me.  So, long story short, I caught two movies on the international flight along with two complimentary Goose Island IPA’s.  Back to American brew.  The mom was not so lucky.  Her precious little darling threw her wine on the floor, so she had little succor as he bit and hit her and repeatedly kicked the seat in front–seven and a half hours.  Sweetheart, would you please stop?  Here’s a better question.  Where’s a Benadryl Blow Dart when you need one?

In Newark, our turn around from one plane to the next was under two hours.  We had to grab our luggage, check it back in about 200 hundred yards (not meters–back in the States) further.  We had to go outside one terminal to get to another to make our connecting flight, which got us caught on a train with some very confused and oblivioius French girls with large suitcases, so Nic pulled out the teacher voice to move them, much to the pilots’ mirth.  But that gave us little special status, as we had to go through security again, which means the water you put in your water bottle on the plane from London is no longer safe to board on the plane to Charlotte.  The guy thought he was doing me a solid by letting me back in at the front of the line to empty my pockets again after I poured the water out–and I guess he was–but I’ve still to travel through an airport security in any city that has not make me think of the term “security theater.”  Down, down, down, all the way to the anus of the C concourse in Newark.  We had to hurry cause in twenty minutes we’d be boarding at the terminal gate.  Somebody help me get outta New Jersey, just help me get to Queen City town.  The flight just long enough for pretzels and a cup of ginger ale.  Swing low chariot, come down easy.  The flight was over, and we had or bags soon.  Kristen met us at the front and took us immediately for Mexican food and Mojitos with Drew.  Nic’s chips and salsa reserves had been depleted and she needed a re-up stat!  In fact, two days later we went and re-upped just to make sure she didn’t lapse.

The journey is over.  There’s lots of weight and implications in those four worlds.  Back home.  Laundry in process.  My backpack has switched from travel to toting books.  Back to work tomorrow.

Wanderlust sated?  Not bloody likely.  Inevitably, you can get roped into the “next time we come here” conversation, imagining how you would do it differently.  Inevitably, you begin to realize all thing things you didn’t get time to do or see, things you didn’t even know you could do or see until you got here.  And then there’s the “where do you want to go next” conversation, which for Nic and me began at some point over the Atlantic on our London to Newark flight.

To put an even more modern twist on this, by penning these epistles the last few weeks, I’ve connected to others in the online community who do the same: travel, write, photograph, document, share.  From reading these tales, I’ve begun to daydream about other out of the way places where my boots and backpack may take me in the future.  You fellow bloggers have read this blog as it chronicled our travels, and I have read yours.  I imagine your wonder and hope you’ve enjoyed us sharing ours.

But for now, our world traveling is on pause.  Soon (after our end-of-trip awards–coming soon!!!), this blog will become a bit less travel-centric for a while.  I’ll still be taking camping trips on the east coast, and Nic and I will continue to find new adventures, but the mind that churned the UK over the last three weeks, looking for ways to piece it together in this written space, will now turn back to the classroom, the students with whom I engage everyday.  My blog posts will turn back to the mundane and domestic–to school stuff and philosophy and yoga and race training and everyday life.  The memories, preserved here in these words and in Nic’s amazing photography, will be catalogued here and in my mind, but my imagination will run wild in a slightly different direction for a while, still trying to piece it all together one day, one post at a time.

Memories that are so vivid today–being swarmed by minges at the Fairy Pools, nearly being blown off the mountain over Edinburgh, a late night Roti with Gary and Ash–are all so vivid now, but as time passes they will become a bit more shadowy.  Even in re-reading, I recognize all the small details that were left on the cutting room floor, moments not caught in picture or writing–like the old man dancing on the street at Camden market, conversations over drinks at the Robbie Burns pub (“I hear all people from Texas are crazy…but good crazy”) or Nic’s proclivity for making people laugh on the Underground (“But really, thanks again for that laugh.”).  At the same time, the seeds that found root in our journey will continue to blossom over time–like improving my repertoire of Scottish folk songs from 0 to 2 (so maybe I can play along next time, though Nic will surely punch me if I pursue my dream of writing one about the Jalpeno Pasta at Pizza Paradise), or learning how to turn around blog posts, not letting them sit in the draft folder unfinished.  Hopefully, these fruits continue to bloom.

It would be easy to lament this change and worry that soon these beautiful days will grow dusty on the shelf in their disuse, but doing so would undermine the gratitude I feel for having this experience.  For the sacrifices we both made to make it happen.  For the opportunity to travel.  For Gary and Ashely’s warm hospitality, their kindness, their love, their laughter, their honest conversation in quiet moments.  For having the great fortune of landing serendipitously in Chelsea’s flat.  For people along the way (the old man at the castle, Alex from Aberdeen via Latvia, the Dutch teachers) who gave us memorable community in our travels.



Gratitude is often easier to cultivate in extraordinary situations.  In travel (as Blanche du Bois once noted) “the kindness of strangers” becomes an amazing gift.  You put yourself into the strange and unfamiliar and you often prove that not only can you do amazing things, but that other people are capable of amazing acts of kindness. large and small.  One of the political speeches I heard at the RNC before I left characterized the world as a dark and scary place, and sometimes in our country we often view the rest of the world with suspicion.  Fortunately in the pocket of the world we just traveled, that turned out not to be so.  People were kind and conversant everywhere we went.  But now as we slide back into the familiar, the known, it becomes easier to take for granted our everyday opportunities, our potential, and also the small contributions people make in our lives both large and small.

It’s inevitable, I guess, to see your own culture through the lens of the one you just left.   And the comparison goes much closer to the skin than which side of the road is correct or the difference between trousers and pants and underwear.   Our roads are wider and we drive more.  We don’t have 70 degree summer days.  We don’t have screeching fox roaming our neighborhoods at night.  We don’t have venison or cider as readily available.  We do have free refills on soda in most place and thunderstorms, as well as fairly accessible public restrooms.  Not everyone has to be like us, and we surely don’t have to be like everyone else, but seeing how it’s done differently can both give you gratitude for what you do have and give you a reality check for what you could really do without.

Hopefully, that drama will play out on another stage for us soon.  I remember the day we walked into Blackwell’s in Edinburgh and thought of all the books I had yet to read.  Traveling, it seems, is having the same effect.  Taking one trip fills me with wonder and happiness, but it also makes me aware of all the many glories on this Earth left for me to explore.   Perhaps temporarily satisfied, the wanderlust, the daydreams of seeing things, observing customs, and meeting people I’ve never seen before will still hold sway in my mind.  Where next?  Belize? Prague?  Bali?  Kilimanjaro?  I guess we’ll see what happens when our paths take us there.