Monthly Archives: September 2013

Be Here Whenever

be-here-now-2I envy people who enjoy life as it occurs. The present feels to me like the space between magnets’ similar poles—sliding one way or the other, slipping to reconsideration or anticipation, never settling with just, this, second. After the fact, I can enjoy having drawn a vase of flowers or having watched a movie I’d meant to see or having exercised for an hour or having written a post or having gone to dinner with friends, but while I’m at it, I can’t look it in the face. My eyes edge left or right as much my mind does.

“The best preparation for the future,” Einstein said, “is to live as if there were none.” But my faith in the future is too strong—there is always a “Next!”—and ignoring anything but this moment, this breath, seems denial instead of living. Though breathing and perceiving is the very definition of being alive, accomplishment rules me. The check marks, the efforts recorded, all the material proofs of productivity sustain me. Without them, I’m inert or lazy or a worthless sack of shit.

My childhood memories of finding adventure seem so abstract now. Once I left the house at nine or ten o’clock to meet friends and wander among activities and conversations, never sure that something or anything might happen today. I’d be home for dinner, that’s all I knew. Pooh asks Piglet what day it is and, learning it’s today, Pooh says “My favorite day!” Once I played games with no thought anything existed outside them. I still remember. The day unfolded as infinite origami, another space revealed in each undoing. No activity occupies that position now. What do any of us do to erase self-consciousness? Is it possible to commit an act without tweeting or youtubing or vining or facebook-ing or instagramming or snap-chatting or blogging the act? How can we willfully forget schedules await us? How can we breathe, and notice we do?

Writing may not help either. Paragraphs code experience, rendering as sentences what might be mystery.  The passage of a bird in peripheral vision becomes recordable. I envy the bird because it knows no necessity other than continuing. It’s always occupied with the business of life. Martha Graham said, “Make the moment important, vital, and worth living. Do not let it slip away unnoticed and unused.” How do we use the present if we can’t see it for the past or future? How do we notice it and also live it innocently?

At school, I’m busy planning a project on mindfulness, “the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience,” yet I feel unqualified. My mindfulness is ever on mindfulness itself, the effort to be… just so I can later I say, “I’ve been.”

Why is being-here-now so challenging when, clearly, all of us are here now whether we like it or not? It’s effort finally, we believe whatever happens happens through trying. Our intentions and not our existence give us meaning. As much as I might wish for presence, the only presence is consciously knowing how this moment plays in an aspirational whole.

It may be wrong for me to say the modern world colludes against me, but I wonder what sort of being-here-now our time can accommodate when so much of living seems devoted to memory and ambition. We have a million ways to organize and record and comment and save and store and revise… and so few ways to simply live.

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Answering To a New Name

9719098440_575ae9edbd_oMaybe you remember getting lost as a child, that moment at the shopping mall or carnival when you looked up to discover a stranger instead of your mom or dad. I still occasionally feel the same disorientation, though the particulars have changed. I expect what I know and find something else instead.

Most recently, at work. As a colleague teaching in the room before me hurriedly gathered his materials, he responded to a student noting all the desks pointed in the same direction, toward the board.

“Test?” the student said.

“No,” my colleague said, “Probably some English teacher arranged the desks this way. They like that.”

I said, “Oh yes, we’re into that full-frontal teaching thing.”

Then it occurred to me, that period I was teaching U. S. Social History. I was a history teacher, not an English teacher.

Back in the hippy-dippy sixties and early seventies, when people asked teachers what they taught, they were supposed to say, “Kids.” Teaching was teaching, and the subject mattered less than relationships with students. I believe that. The fundamentals of encountering new information, thinking about it, and demonstrating mastery aren’t that different from subject to subject. The methodology may change—examining history and novels demand diverse skills—but the teacher’s role as a guide is largely the same. You know. You understand. You can do what they can’t yet. Your job is to instruct them in learning, to help them figure out how to absorb and explore what, a few moments before, was new.

Nonetheless, I quickly corrected myself after identifying as an English teacher. “But this is history,” I said, “I’m a history teacher right now.” I suddenly feared losing the students’ confidence. They might begin to question if I knew my stuff, and a panicked part of me shouted “Imposter!”

As an English teacher I come in with big ideas and hope the class will find passages and episodes to discuss them. But in history, I’m more fearful. If we’re talking about the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson doesn’t come up, I know I’ve screwed up. Or, anyway, that’s how I feel in my imposter moments—knowing my stuff is critical. My history department chair says “No.” He says, as long as I teach them to think about the implications of historical detail and to grasp the way historians assess it, dates and events matter less.

If the colleague who teased me was covertly sincere in his commentary about the desks, maybe he doesn’t make a distinction, as he implied English teachers love to lecture the way history teachers, as the cliché goes, love to impart the Story of Civilization. Yet any history teacher who describes the past moment by moment had better be a brilliant story-teller. Any English teacher holding forth on his or her interpretation had better be brilliant.  Most of the time, spilling secrets and playing “Guess what the teacher is thinking?” fails. While I hope I know more history than my students, I also hope they’ll engage the detail they encounter, perhaps even empathize as a reader might.

For many years, I’ve been co-teaching a course that combines American history and literature. I teach the literature half, but I’ve traveled through the national story several times. What I gained from watching the other teacher wasn’t the information she knew—though she knows an amazing amount—but her skill at encountering it, her knack of changing the angles on what students thought they knew, and drawing them back to documents and artifacts that spur fresh theories. It’s not simply stuff to her.

It will take some time before I answer to “history teacher” and perhaps longer to feel I deserve the title as she does, but maybe forgetting what I’m teaching is another sort of progress, the recognition that, whatever I am this period, I’m just trying to help.

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Trying Again

086001You are reading my second blog post today. This morning I wrote about my students and the particular burdens we adults put on them. Now it sits in a virtual scrapyard labeled “Orphans” on my computer. Essays and fragments of essays land there when I lose interest, reach an insurmountable obstacle, or see myself drop into a rut I’ve carved too many times. Most attempts I abandon midway when doubt overcomes will.

Rarely do I finish a post and then file the entirety as a failure, as I did today. And today’s reason is rare too—I wrote something I don’t believe. When I was in high school and college and even in graduate school (the first time), I could get so caught up in making an argument that, right or wrong, I’d run it down, run it to death. In the end, I either convinced myself (at least until I reread it later) or felt such pride in my well wrought object I wasn’t interested in truth anymore. I don’t do that so often now, but I guess I’m not over it.

Sometimes writing feels wildly creative, as if you were Tarzan picking out just the vines to cross the jungle, each grip presenting itself, a path through the air somehow illuminated before you. But writing can also be mechanical. You need to avoid overusing the verb “to be” or want to replace the prepositional phrase “in my room” with the possessive “room’s” or seek to sidestep using “I” once more. And the line between creative and mechanical can be faint. One moment your choices fulfill a sort of fate, the next they repeat a process as engrained as factory work.

This morning, I began with a quotation by Jonathan Swift, “No wise man ever wished to be younger.” I didn’t know what I wanted to say about it really, but set out to dispute it. How could I not envy my students, after all? I said they, “Possess the foolishness of invincibility and are well armed for adversity, having barely tested their response to it.” The only reason I might not envy them, I decided, is the pressure they feel, pressure imposed by us, the parents, teachers, and other adults in their life.

Sounds good, but 447 words later, having flown through my jungle of thoughts in an impassioned plea on their behalf, I wondered if I’d told the truth… or, worse, if I’d even told my truth.

Writing often has its own agenda, not a desire for completion so much as neatness, an idea combed or arranged with just the right sort of disarray. Here is a paragraph from my aborted post:

My students love the word “pressure” and use it constantly. They can’t help noticing the dome of hope they live under, the pre-supposed life story they hear retold and retold, a tall tale that often drains joy and spontaneity from this subject, this class, this now. We want the best for them but, for them, that translates as wanting more. Why are we surprised they find ways to appear to be what we want… and are something else when we’re not looking? Why are we surprised by their duplicitous, dishonest lives?

When a metaphor presents itself—a dome of hope—the compulsion to harmonize comes over me. Everything I write after must agree in some way. That life story they hear and rehear, the protection from spontaneity, the wall separating them from now, all those quasi-images extend the original assertion. Yet each also contradicts my original observation that youth are well-armed, insensitive to limitations. Each stepped away from the last.

And are youth insensitive or not? Many—how could I ever even imagine speaking for all of them?—feel expectations keenly. For those students, the issue with pressure is hypersensitivity. Sometimes they seem nervous parrots afraid to step from their cages. A few are so afraid of screwing up they eschew any public or private risk. As it’s messy to explain how complicated and variable the situation is, I stooped to rhetorical questions, which answer nothing and only propose reexamination.

In other words (the short version), I found myself speaking to speak and not truly to communicate. Those moments leave me wishing to apologize to myself. I turned my head for sound and fury. I hadn’t been faithful.

When I cast aside something I’ve written, I grieve. A whole essay, like this morning’s, causes particular grief because all my effort and all my hope came to nothing… and I still have a post to write. Yet given a little time I get over it and even, as now, can appreciate it. A writer’s lessons may never stick but they’re also always new. The challenge is always new, and maybe that, as much as truth, keeps me going.

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Have I Written About This Before?

 image-memory1.

Here’s my memory device for walking out the door for work each morning, “I must climb K2 promptly,” or “I-glasses, climate preparation (umbrella and/or coat), two sets of keys (home and school) and phone.” The “must” is just “must.” I need those things.

CLIMB is also an aid to memory. I need my Cup (because I want to be environmentally responsible), my Lunch (because I’ll be hungry later), my Implement (because, if I have to grade, I’d like my fountain pen), my Macs (because the school gave me a laptop and an iPad and expects I’ll use them), and my Books (because teaching with an unannotated text is a nightmare).

Still I occasionally forget things. No memory device reminds me to use my memory device.

2.

Most of my life I’ve been overwrought, obsessed with the next moment, worried about outcomes, hypersensitive to others’ perceptions, and devoted to displaying tranquility I didn’t really feel.

I’ve always wanted to care less. But aging, it turns out, has made me careless instead, subject to sudden slippery patches set to throw me on my ass when I least expect.

3.

As the brain ages, it becomes less plastic, and memories that used to reach deep roots into gray matter sit instead on the cortex, as lichen might. Recollections and procedures that once imprinted without notice require willful storage, conscious clinging, attention.

You can drive home from work without remembering making a turn, and you might be able to play a song on the piano without deliberately hitting a key. If you want to remember your sister-in-law’s brother’s face or the name of that actor who was on “Saturday Night Live” and appeared with that other guy who’s in a lot of Will Farrell movies that was sort of a parody of the Man in Black singer… well, good luck with that.

Having an IMDb app doesn’t help. Then you don’t have to remember anything. And can’t.

4.

Before class, a knot of students crammed for a quiz the next period, and I mentioned my morning memory aids. As they listened, their faces formed expressions they might make if I’d said I’d be missing class the next day for hernia surgery—a mixture of pity, embarrassment, and horror.

5.

The universe gets a little strange when you move from reality to a code to represent reality.

It reminds me of a joke I once heard:

A group of friends get together every Thursday night to drink beer and talk, and, being old, old friends, they get to know one another’s stories so well they take to numbering them.

“17,” one says, and the others laugh and say, “That’s a good one.”

“38,” says another and they chuckle and say, “Wow, haven’t heard that one in a while!”

Steve, the youngest of the group, listens from the sidelines, not sure what to offer, but finally decides to join in.

“68!” he shouts, and their faces drop. They fall silent.

“Some people just can’t tell a story,” someone says, and the others shake their heads.

6.

The absent-minded professor is a cliché. I’m not a professor but people generously forgive my lapses by saying my mind dwells on bigger things. Sometimes, I am lost in ruminations about the chapter I’ll teach that day or about some scholar’s thoughts about a mysterious moment or character.

Sometimes I’m juggling five balls too many and close my eyes.

7.

The average high school book-bag weighs 20 pounds, and mine is about that. It may not seem like much in the abstract, but lifting it from the floor to your back is athletic. Carrying it evokes a soldier’s life, humping through the heat with all necessaries for an indefinite time forward.

How much is just-in-case? How much is schlepped back and forth untouched, the detritus at the bottom of a toolbox or truck bed, burdens of neglect?

It seems so much easier to be prepared materially than to be prepared psychologically or emotionally. The book-bag stands for readiness.

8.

When I was young, a respected doctor in my hometown developed premature Alzheimer’s and periodically escaped his home and wandered the neighborhood.

Grown-ups alerted us to look out for him. Nothing scared me more than the possibility of encountering him. The news sent me inside. So I never met him on his walkabouts, but my brother once told me how the doctor’s son, my brother’s friend, guided his father home.

Just the brief description haunted me. I imagined the scene. A son leading his father and whispering reassurances and consolations that broke over his dad’s mind like the lightest ripples on a lake shore.

Now I wonder what clues he recognized in blocks they walked together, what things spoke the code he’d lost and said he was in places he knew.

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The Trouble With Belief

02C63D43DA01429AB0C4B1E2D38FE38CIn college, friends would sometimes say, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” Had I been the scoffing sort then, I might have grilled them to discover what they meant.

Instead, I said, “Me too.”

Now, as then, not even that is accurate. I’m not sure I accept spirit. Belief comes hard for me. I have to scratch it from the reluctant clay of reason, one assertion and another and another. If I can agree something is so then something else might be, which means something else… and so on. My hands are full of supposition, taking no shape but what a mind can form of it.

In my classes, I sometimes suggest a distinction between recognition and realization. One is chiefly rational and the other emotional. Macbeth can consider the consequences of killing King Duncan. He can outline the reasons he shouldn’t and balance them against the plan proposed by his wife. In other words, he can recognize the meaning of the murder, completely and coldly. Not until he kills Duncan, however, does he feel what he’s done and sag under its gravity. His realization awaits the marriage of reason and emotion.

Belief for me has been largely recognition.

I’d prefer realization.

Recently a friend sent me an illuminating e-mail. I’d been talking, in a figurative sense, about getting most of my exercise from kicking myself around the block, and she suggested one fundamental need addressed by religion is explaining a person’s existence. Faith justifies the presence of a self and self-awareness, accounts for the burden of living and presents validation greater than any available by pure cognition.

It sounds complicated (and perhaps I haven’t understood her), but it makes a sort of sense. If you want to find a place, you have to believe in something bigger than the space you occupy. No fantasy, no mental castle in the air, no rational palace, will house you for long.

In July, in an avowed “Book report,” David Brooks wrote of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age that, in an age of humanistic rather than religious experience, we experience many benefits, yet:

…these achievements also led to more morally demanding lives for everybody, believer and nonbeliever. Instead of just fitting docilely into a place in the cosmos, the good person in secular society is called upon to construct a life in the universe. She’s called on to exercise all her strength.

This shift in consciousness leads to some serious downsides. When faith is a matter of personal choice, even believers experience much more doubt. As James K.A. Smith of Comment Magazine, who was generous enough to share his superb manuscript of a book on Taylor, put it, “We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.”

I’m certainly Thomas. I think often of joining the local Buddhist temple because its belief comes closest to my thinking. The trouble is acting. The trouble is lying down before what seems constructed—one of many choices. Doubt lingers nearby, whispering, “Is this it?”

Life seemed much easier when I could call myself “spiritual” without commitment. It was plain. Now, the afternoon dims to gray, and my mind slips into its wake, equally low and dim in a calm welcome to diminishment and silence. “This,” I think, “is religious. I’m somewhere outside myself now.” Then some definition gathers in my brain, and the moment passes.

If I could hold, as people did in 1500, the fundamental assumption of God, that moment might last. But we don’t live then, and what rumination will bring me back? That part of my brain doesn’t talk enough. It keeps peace a secret.

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On Epiphanies

epiphany-1Everything you learn has a source, some known, some never, all linked to a moment of absorption or realization.

I prefer realization. It comes from inside you, seeds germinating at last or new shadows formed in fresh angles of particular suns. After all this time anything novel amazes me. That it waits, more so.

Much of what we know is strictly known. Intellectually we accept cells, plant cells have cell walls, organelles like mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum dwell in cells. When mitosis occurs, cells reproduce, and alleles split like puppets yanked back before a curtain falls between them. One is then two. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny (though not so much anymore), and, every seven to ten years or so, every cell sacrifices for its twin.

George Washington was our first president, and he was much loved.

None of it is visible, and so it’s belief truly, better than placing faith in four humors but otherwise not much different. I’ve seen films and peered through microscopes and never truly witnessed.

I remember sitting alone in a library on a Sunday doing Wednesday’s work. I saw a ball fly through the corner of a window. I saw it fly through again, its perfect white arc the path of a planet in a solid blue sky. And soon I gathered books and notes and found my way outside to complete a picture half seen, searching for terminal points. Without teaching, I’d discovered—we are meant to feel pleasure, to perceive with pleasure, to appreciate pleasure, and put aside work (at times) to honor pleasure as the greatest human glory.

Where did that knowledge originate? I might suggest a Guide, an entity outside myself, but, the experience seems broader—a conspiracy of circumstances, a moment meant to spring. That anything so novel arrived amazed me, that it waited, more so.

Epiphanies appear so thoroughly meant, as if knowing isn’t knowing but ripening. It sounds silly in so grandiose terms, but some moments visit unbidden.

And some unwelcome. Wincing realizations slice into your sense of myself, reminders of other mistakes, more half-steps into darkness.

I worry I’m saying what you know and make myself ridiculous by repeating the obvious but want to believe you’re with me. Feeling has more sources than knowledge. Who is unique? At this moment, something awaits encounter, a felt truth never taught.

After all this time something novel waits to amaze.

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The Brutes of Jamestown

JAMESTOWN_OVERVIEW_01I’m hypersensitive to language in my history text. Every “somewhat” and “oddly enough,” and “ultimately” alerts me to hidden judgments, conclusions built on the basis of evidence or—perhaps—assumptions.

Here’s one from the section about early troubles in the colony of Jamestown, which were, the book reports, “to a large degree their own making.” After a list of missteps, the author says,

And they could create no real community without women, who had not come to Jamestown. The settlers had no real households and thus no real stakes in the communities.

This assessment is probably fair. A bunch of men working for profit in a strange and challenging place would miss domestic comforts, especially if they left family and partners behind. Yet, being a male, a faint alarm always goes off in my brain when women are presented as the only civilizing influence on men, as if, without females, males would have no hope of self-regulation, no possibility of creating mutual support or expressing affection. If I were feeling especially touchy, I might howl over stereotyping, a bunch of sweaty men fighting, drinking, grabbing, and farting, always farting. Surely, the settlers were ahead of the animals they carried with them.

But my imagination contributes to my reaction. Maybe no one—any member of any group—appreciates hearing their membership insulted, and I’m defensive. These historians probably draw on evidence of male misbehavior, records of rules and punishment necessary to curb excesses and keep the workers laboring. And he wants to excuse them. The author also says it’s the absence of “real households” that creates trouble for the men. He suggests elsewhere that these men found themselves in an extraordinarily strange situation, as if they’d traveled to another planet. More importantly, even if it is a disparagement of males, one muted insult hardly measures up to the ravages of male privilege throughout time, the relentless stereotyping and denigration of women and minorities.

Still, I’ve seen the drawings. Jamestown included houses. I partly distrust and am partly ashamed of feeling as I do, but some nagging misgiving persists, one I just can’t put away without comment. It’s silly to be bothered and I know that, yet I want to explain my reaction, irrational as it might be.

Why couldn’t the men create some facsimile of households? Could they be so ignorant of domesticity, have missed all the advantages of households they knew? And unless they were exclusively brutish, why does this history focus on their brutishness particularly?

In a larger sense, when does the image of the knuckle-dragging male become prescriptive instead of descriptive, the expectation instead of the reality, an inevitability preventing an ideal? I try to own the behavior of the Jamestown men and know that’s the way men were and, even now, often are. But men, like women (or members of any identifiable group) are subject to roles constrained by social expectations and constructs. Some presuppositions are invisible without scrutiny, so how can we work on developing our own ideal identities without noting—as I feel compelled to here—how we’re labeled?

It’s dangerous to say so. I don’t want to be lumped with men who insist on out-suffering every sufferer, who respond to accusations of sexism with counter-accusations rather than remedying their own deplorable behavior. Understandably, those men do little but draw further censure by being self-centered, oblivious of their unfair advantages, and obnoxious in their vehemence. I’ve benefited from male privilege. As a white, heterosexual, reasonably well-off man, I can’t claim membership in any disparaged group.

I like to believe, however, that I’m not simply being defensive. I’m really asking: Can you recognize your status (specifically, your unjustified, inequitable status) and also recognize that everyone—every level of every hierarchy in society—is, in some major or minor way, socially constructed? Doesn’t change begin with that recognition?

How would the bros back in Jamestown have felt about history’s characterization. If some future historian arrived on a time-riding surfboard to tell them, they might have made some effort to overturn their future image.

Perhaps not. Most women would scoff. Not a single male in my class thought of the first Jamestown settlers as barbarians, just typical guys. Speaking for myself, however, it isn’t easy to listen to flaws conferred upon me as a type of person instead of as an individual. I want to be able to express frustration with the boxes people put me in and, maybe, lead others out. I’m not sure how far we can get by assuming objections to male stereotypes are defensive, misguided, or irrelevant. People need the right to say they feel misunderstood or mislabeled. I have to be okay with being irked by descriptions of men being lost without women, even if I’m accused of overreaction or denial.

Some ads make men look stupid. If you’re not a male of that type—and who wants to be a male of that type?—those ads are hard to watch. However, they’re also a call to arms. If you don’t like them, show you have a brain, show you can raise children, show you’re not ruled by your libido, show you can call out men who devalue women. Show you could make a home even in Jamestown, and show those brutes aren’t you. Begin by saying you don’t like what society (or history) says you are. Then you have to hope you’ll shake a few prescriptive stereotypes loose.

I’m not really objecting to the text. It’s generalizing on the basis of conditions much more complicated than its one or two sentence description. A host of causes contributed to what happened in Jamestown and, besides, it’s irretrievably passed.

Why complain? I shouldn’t complain. As I’ve said, I disapprove of men saying, “Hey, we’re victims too!” But I can’t help myself. Not every lament about the depiction of males IS that statement. Who wins a debate over the hierarchy of prejudice? Don’t all assumptions need to be illuminated to be addressed?

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