Posts Tagged ‘hope’

Impermanence

timeThis morning I have been reading Ecclesiastes. For non-Biblical types, that’s the collected wisdom of Solomon, son of David, who supposedly was the wisest person in the whole world. Solomon had this to say about life: it sucks, and then you die and someone else gets your stuff.

Ecclesiastes is not for the faint of heart, and it seems like an odd choice for the days after Christmas when we’re all so full of joy and light and turkey that we could explode. But the older we get, my friends, the more we realize that nothing lasts—not the lights, tinsel, trees, or even the families that gather within our walls.

On Christmas Eve, my precious aunt shut her eyes forever on this world. Her son, who had been keeping a familiar vigil, sent me a text message: “She’s gone.”

Now listen. A lot of people jump straight on that “She’s not gone, she’s waiting for you in Heaven” train, but that one doesn’t stop here. Sorry. She’s gone. She is not here. She will not be here any more. This is what Emily Dickinson—and I can’t believe I’m quoting her—meant when she said that “Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell.”

To jump on the pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by train is to circumvent something really important. Nothing lasts. King David said that, and Solomon, and Shakespeare has said that, and my own favorite, Mary Oliver, as if poets have some pipeline to truth that we have probably shut off out of fear. We use drugs, alcohol, technology, anything to drown out the awareness of our impermanence. Time is a lot of things, but the one we try hardest to push away is that it is relentless.

My favorite memory of my aunt, and I have lots, is of her when she is a lot younger than I am now, and she is staring at her sons and my sister and me in horror because we are playing penny-ante poker with .22 caliber shells instead of pennies. She ruined a perfectly good poker game, although possibly she preserved our heedless little lives.

. . . For a while.

For once, I am not going to be a prescriptivist. Solomon said everything we do and are is pretty much meaningless. Then I think about my aunt, gentle and patient and funny and wise. Solomon took the long view and, okay, in another generation or two nobody’s going to remember much about us. But the short view is the one that’s important, and in that perspective, her memory is more precious than my comfort.

Today’s true thing is that I will savor those memories even though they sting a bit, and then try to take pleasure in this day and live in a way that makes other people glad I was around. Solomon said that God has set eternity in people’s hearts, and I have no idea what that means, but for today I am aware that I have zero bright December 27, 2013 mornings left, so this one is precious.

 

Coming to Terms, At Least For Now

Most of us, somewhere in the bottom of the script that defines our lives, have a hidden, unacknowledged little codicil that could be entitled “The Way It’s Supposed To Go.”  This document stays unexamined until some life event veers so far off that it triggers a whole cascade of (mostly negative) responses.  This was not “The Way It’s Supposed to Go,” and not just in terms of getting a piece of apple pie when you ordered key lime.

Emily Dickinson said “Hope is the thing with feathers,” but she was NOT talking about Puck, who is sort of the Parrot of Peculiarity.

We all have this internal script, and everyone’s is offended at some point.  Recently, I have discovered one of my own places where life has veered off the script, and this hip is it.  I was not supposed to be pretty much debilitated at 53.  I was not supposed to have my life circumscribed to things I can do without walking much.  (Granted, I like a lot of these, and I can be pretty creative, but it would be nice to walk across the room without pain, not to mention walk the dog or even stroll around the yard and pick flowers.  We want what we can’t have, I guess.)

It’s impossible not to think about this in terms of my Beloved, too, who wants a person he can ride bikes and hike with, someone who can wander the streets of strange cities and carry medicine bags into jungles.  He never says this, but I know he longs, too, for the day when I can do these things.

Maybe that day will come.  I’m fortunate in that hip replacements are pretty standard procedures and the outcomes are very good.  The odds are excellent that I will get my life back – but they’re not 100%.  And if I don’t?  It all depends on how good I am, and how good the people I love are, at letting go of the script.

Today has been a day of wrestling with this, and there’s a part of me, maybe a pretty big part, that wants to whine about how it wasn’t supposed to be like this, about how much the pain limits me, about how vulnerable and fragile I feel when my 22-year-old son has to carry me upstairs.  I stopped taking my arthritis medicine on Tuesday to prepare for the surgery, and that means that lots of things hurt now, not just the hip.  It’s oh-so-easy to let the pain turn into anger and depression, and the anger and depression turn into misery for me and the people who share my life right now.

When that cycle starts, I have to take a time-out.  This morning, it was on the back deck, where a small, nondescript bird was singing so hard and loud that its little feet lifted off the telephone pole in the alley.  The part of me that resents things snarled “I bet its hips don’t hurt,” but the rest of me, the part that was loving the feeling of the warm sun and cool breeze, and the grapevine with clusters of ripening fruit, and the fuzzy companionship of the dog, bitch-slapped that “other” me, and not a moment too soon.

As a person of faith, I believe that nothing is pointless, not even suffering.  I really do believe that; it’s not some random straw to be grabbed in a desperate moment.  Even when I am brutally reminded that I am powerless and mortal, and my life has taken a 90◦ turn off The Way It’s Supposed To Go, I have choices.  Like all choices, some are better than others.  If, God forbid, I kick the bucket soon, I would prefer not to waste my last days whining about how much this sucks.   And if I don’t, then I will have had two good weeks.  Either way, the people I love will be happy that I am here with them, and not wishing that I would shut up.

I have to put this truth where I can get to it often:  The Script Is Fiction.  It was never real, certainly never a contractual arrangement, and we can’t make life follow it.  To be alive in the world and in love with the terrible beauty of it, is to suffer disappointment and grief.  Those things are real, but often they are “real” measures of how far life has veered from the script, and their power is proportional to our hold on The Way It’s Supposed To Go.  Like the puppy on the porch and the bird on the pole, all I have is the now, and all I want is the grace to live in it.

Reflections on the End of the Semester, With Diet Pepsi

Who waxes philosophical on a Friday morning?  Somebody dodging the last eight freshman research papers, that’s who.

It’s the end of the semester.  Really.  On Monday I give my final final and can put this semester in the book of Things I Wish I’d Done Differently.  Maybe there are, somewhere out there, college professors who hit the tape at the end waving their arms and high-fiving students.  I always stagger across the line feeling like I owe my students a refund.

It’s uncomfortable, but it pushes me, this never feeling satisfied, never feeling completely good about What Just Happened.  Here is today’s true thing:  In nearly twenty years of college teaching (!), I have never taught the same syllabus twice.  Never.  Every course, every year.  Is that difficult?  Well, yes.

But doing things the same way, the same semester over and over, is worse.  Yeah, I have found things that work, certain assignments or techniques that tend to push people out of their comfort zones and into something that could resemble learning if I don’t look too closely.  I do those more than once, but always in a new context, and always, at the end, I have that hollow feeling of a job done, but not well done.

What could I do differently?  Everything.  I almost always do everything differently, and every semester, at the end, I look at those final papers and think, “What is wrong with me?”

This is probably a mother, or perhaps a southern, thing.  A different thinker might do something like “What is wrong with them?”   I can’t do that, because it is my JOB to cut through the BS, find the connections between my subject (writing, in this case) and their lives, and help them care.  Some of them do.  A lot of them just get by, not really using their whole brains, not trying anything new or taking any risks, not thinking.

I’m not sure I blame them.  Awareness is like Douglas Adams’ total perspective vortex; once you see the injustice and the problems, it becomes impossible to cozy up in your tiny mind and be comfortable again, and at the same time, you realize your powerlessness.  It’s the odd paradox of the professoriate that at the end of the semester, when in terms of awarding grades and crap like that we are most “powerful,” we are also most aware of how powerless we really are.  What’s a grade worth, in the face of the challenges of living a life that’s worth the air we breathe and the space we take up?  Not much.

Most of the people I know who teach (at every level), do it because they want the world to be a better place for their having taught in it.  Broadly speaking, that means they want their students to come out of their classes not just with a collection of facts, but more intelligent, compassionate, open-minded, more willing to explore the world with an eye to making it better.  If we could really do this, the ripple effect would change history.

But it’s a lot harder than it sounds, and that’s why the end of the semester is not so happy.  There wasn’t enough time.  We were so close!  Or maybe we weren’t; maybe the comma splices got in the way.  Maybe having to read hard things was too hard.  Maybe the world doesn’t change because, whatever I believe about teaching, my students believe in the power of the grade.

Maybe I need to shut up and evaluate these eight essays.  The great thing about the end of the semester is that there’s a new one coming.  Maybe this fall I will finally get it right, find the formula, get my finger on the “connect” button and push it.  Despite all our jokes about booze, which none of us can afford at this point in our lives, the real drug of academia is hope.  Where would we be without it?

Locusts and Wild Honey

It is locust season here in Southwest Virginia.  No, not the cicadas that swarm in 17-year cycles, but the bloom season of the black locust trees, rubinia pseudoacacia.  Locusts are members of the pea family, albeit peas on growth hormone and, well, ugly pills.

The black  locust is a bit like one of Cindarella’s stepsisters – the tree is scraggly, mis-shapen, and covered in unpleasant thorns.  Well, okay, Cinderella’s stepsisters weren’t exactly thorny, but they shared the personality of a brier patch festooned in poison ivy; I digress.   When I was a kid, the only trees in our back yard were locusts.  They meant that anyone walking barefoot there ran the risk a painful encounter; they were too straight to climb, too scrawny to provide much shade (and they were on the north side of the yard, in any case), and too thorny to play under.  They blighted every year in late summer, as some beetle invaded them and turned the leaves an unsightly brown.  What a waste of tree-hood!

But every May, these ugly, intractable trees bloomed clouds of white flowers with pale yellow tongues, hanging in festive panicles.  From a distance, a blooming locust looks soft and white, and up close, the tree itself seems to hum with the happy activity of bees.  Locust honey is its own thing – some apiaries specialize in it, and no wonder.  Locust flowers make up for a lot of year-round ugliness.

When we were kids, the locust blooms were a sure sign of impending summer, of (ironically) barefoot-weather,  and their heavenly fragrance wafted in our windows at night.  The smell of locust blooms, like the smell of lilacs, reminds me of home. 

Yesterday evening, I met my Beloved and our son for dinner at a local restaurant.  We sat outside on a wooden deck built around several locust trees.  Their white petals made the benches look like one of the more frou-frou wedding venues,  but the smell!  It’s still got the power to make me feel a lot younger and a lot more hopeful.  And smarmy as it is, the locust bloom reminds me that even the ugliest things can have something beautiful tucked away inside them, waiting for the right time to bloom.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

One of my favorite blogs is Glennon Melton’s Momastery.  Her blog recently hit the big-time, and I hope she’s okay, because I love it and her, and one of the reasons is that she is so relentlessly, unstintingly honest.  And because she is honest, she said last week that “life done right is one long recovery process.”

 As a chronic worrier, catastrophist, and lifelong fearful person, this seems exactly right to me.  Almost every morning I wake up with some kind of dread bubbling inside, and every day is all about rejecting that dread and replacing it with joy; that’s a choice I make, not something that just happens to me while I wait for it.  I am a recovering fear addict.

 It looks like my Beloved and I will be going to Guatemala in March as part of the support team for 24 medical students.   My natural inclination is to find a reason not to go, and I have a selection of several good ones, starting with my family and working down to my hip.  But I’m going, not because I’m brave or anything, but because this is something I’m called to do, and the only way to stop being a fearful person is to do the things that scare me.  Plus, we already have the plane tickets.  None of this fills me with joy.

 What fills me with joy is the little, stupid things.  Friday night, my Beloved and I went on a retreat with the rest of the (huge) Guatemala team at a church camp facility north of Roanoke.  (It’s not like we’re going into the wilderness alone; we could have about 40 people as part of this endeavor.)  The group affectionately called the “old farts” had a cabin to itself, while the students divvied up two other cabins.  The Old Farts included the medical director of the trip and his wife, a non-medical couple who have been to Guatemala before, the guy who lived in Guatemala for 22 years and has three of his eight children still there, and us.  Oh, and a dog.

The dog, Copper, is a medium-large Labrador-mix-looking dog, and he is at that age where he is part dog, part furniture.  Before his mom got back to the cabin, I had him snuggled up in my bunk because I love dogs, and he was comforting.  Besides, the floor was cold, and my bunk was, and I put this mildly, a cross between a hammock and a banana.  No dog was going to make it less comfortable, but he might warm it up.

 Eventually, though, he had to go sleep on his pillow, and I was left alone in my sagging bed that twanged like a banjo in the hands of someone blessed with six thumbs, in a room with six other people who were also in various stages of discomfort.  Then the males (I think) started snoring.  From every corner of the room came a chorus of those little snorts and whistles that are to true snoring what tuning is to an orchestral performance.  Sure enough, the full complement of snorks and groans started soon thereafter, followed by the twanging of other mattresses as various wives sought solace in putting their pillows over their heads.  Obviously, sleeping in something like a “V” shape, I was not able to do this.

Then , when it seemed that the misery had reached its fullness and could not possibly get more miserable, Copper started sleep-barking.  Like the guys, he began with a few muffled woofs and growls, but soon graduated to a full-fledged “Hear me, forces of darkness!” bark, although he was clearly not awake and not barking at anything in this realm.  He quieted down for just a second, and then started sleep-howling. 

 And that’s when I had my moment of joy.  I am lying in a room with five people I barely know, my spouse, a dog, on the bed from Hell, and I am doing this so that I can go do something even worse.  I starting laughing quietly to myself, but since my bunk vibrated with every movement, it was soon adding an ee-ee ee-ee ee-ee rhythm of its own.  I wondered, “Am I nuts?  Are we all nuts?”  Probably.  But if I can spend one sleepless night recovering from fear, then I can do anything, and when I’m so old that I’m sleep-howling myself, I will have memories of more than just fear to howl about.

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