Friday, April 11, 2008

walking the line

"The most you can do is trust
The faith you see with your own eyes
And my feet are still tender
Like skin is when it heals

I’ve got to walk that line

We remember how you bled
When we all drink the wine
We’re looking for your steps
That started up that line."

~ The Smalltown Poets, That Line

A weekday off: not a sick-day or a legal holiday, but an unstructured and approved string of waking hours that I have designated for ruminative frivolity. It is deliciously grey and cool outside, and the sky is a seamless white backdrop. With light so completely diffused, there are no shadows - not even beneath the chair legs upon the slate terrace floor outside the Boston Athenaeum. With a day all my own, this is the place to be- considering I cannot stray too far from tomorrow’s resuming routines. Longer sojourns have their place, but there is much to be said for a day’s retreat, be it indoors or out. My intent isn’t to write specifically about this place, however my personal reference to this grand library as a preferred philological retreat- like the pensive overcast sky- manifests in the form of a starting point for many thoughts. I gravitate to places like this, because I love to learn- particularly when the learning involves concepts, words, and images that my heart embraces.

My own learning process got a lot more interesting, since having gotten through all my formal schooling. The reward for all my perseverance is that I can discover and choose my own sources, and if I want to spend two months reading a short book, so be it. As it now appears, it seems we must surmount all sorts of obstacles, along with senseless courses and exams, to reach a point at which we can choose to learn for our own personal expression and growth. My gratitude for this moment comprises an ingredient of having survived the crime-ridden and impoverished New York City public school system, with some scattered recollections of some good instruction that took root- beginning at Public School No.13, and extending all the way through post-graduate work.

Permeating much of the useful learning that continues to accompany me comes from my mother’s common-sense and humored way of integrating diverse subjects into an eclectic way of approaching life. I saw a consistent conscientiousness in every situation, whether it was in the preparation of a meal, a painting or drawing, a flower bed, a household project, or fixing a flat bicycle tire. That sense of method and intuition was present in every context, such that there seemed just one context: how things are done. And, that there are meanings in ordinary things. Appropriate for today’s thoughts, it was with the very same sensitivity that she taught me to write. I learned how to write at home, before the penmanship lessons that taught us an American style of slanted and flowing cursiveness, so my handwriting to this day resembles my mother’s vertical style. Following the light pencilled lines, she would say, "make your mark." Then, at about nine years of age, it was calligraphy- ink blots and all. "Make me nice clear numbers that I can read," and "Make those I’s nice and tall like you are!" Indeed, learning demands doing, just as theory prompts practice. To really make one’s mark, it takes some extraordinary tenacity that goes far beyond training and lessons. When we can merge our skills with our passions, the learning, refinement, and collecting of insights continues with a very natural effort.

"I hear, I forget;
I see, I understand;
I do, I remember"

Those immortal words of Confucius, quoted above, were posted as a motto by my fourth grade teacher at P.S. 13 (Mrs. Levy, Room 313), and somehow despite the ocean of information that I’ve navigated since those rough-and-tumble days at the age of eight, these words remain with me. Such simple sayings are easy to remember, and for a visual person, the message’s content is accompanied by the way it appeared on the wall: in cut-out construction paper letters. Every day, as I walk across my living room, I glance at a small letterpress print given to me by the Shaker community, here in Maine, that reads: "Hands to Work, Hearts to God." Seeing and understanding has been a guideline for me, to distinguish between theoretical and practical. But doing and remembering is a principle that is the basis for how I learn and how I teach- and- for the spiritual life. Learning and understanding, or comprehension, joins the equation of doing and remembering. In my experience, the practice and refinement of a craft, or a method, or an ability, is the fulfillment of its pursuit. Theory demands practice, and practice demands continuity. It is also true of belief. When a conscientious faith is not implemented, we see uncompassionate social ministry and unwise and disjointed management. The cutting-edge between disconnection and a fine sense of mutuality is the ability and desire to see from another’s vantage point, to figuratively "walk in another’s shoes." Pondering these things, so many schoolrooms and places of employment later, my hope has been to somehow apply a unitive perspective to all of life’s interactions and embarkations. To see those around me, and the contexts I inhabit, as an integrated entirety.

In the cultivating of vigilant hope- especially in these times and this culture, we are ever confronted by tempting currents of cynicism and apathy. Indeed, we know how easily a pessimistic reckoning of living can take hold, considering the emphases on compounding hardships in so many forms. To try to understand some of these realities, and yet also to keep from being overwhelmed, there must be counterbalance. Not an unreality, which would further disappoint, but an aspiration that strengthens by the day, in the spirit that assures us with "my friends, know that I am with you always and until the end of time." Such mindfulness implies both remembrance and looking forward. Being fully awake to life as it unfolds, and also actively participating in it, is to be both watchful and unhesitating. I believe it is well worth cultivating a sense of evaluative discernment, yet keeping obstructive judgments in check. Inhabiting- and even prospering- in this society, yet not being of this society, implies an openness amenable enough for the miraculous, along with a strength to withstand a spirit that brings many to debilitating jadedness.

Choosing hopefulness also means repeatedly deciding against succumbing to an inability to trust. At times I have to strain, and need solid reminders that direct me to what is good. Reflecting upon what is worthwhile shows me the blessings for which to take stock, and also pitfalls to avoid. Granted, this life subjects us to constant uncertainties and frustrating mediocrities, but it doesn’t mean we must recoil with insecurity or lower our standards. The fact that situations are often fleeting could be reason itself to take heart. In his book, "Struggle and Contemplation," Brother Roger of Taizé wrote: "Nothing is more disheartening than people frozen into the appearances of a vocation reduced to its sociological forms." Perhaps that was his way of expressing the observation of that state of "going through the motions," that many of us witness with dismay, viewing it as a warning. For me, nothing has been more disheartening than untapped potential. But in the face of what may dictate otherwise, I press forward and grasp the consoling hopes I’ve been given and continue to discover. Among such promise is the consolation of the open-ended learning process, and gratitude for some of the guidelines that are with me today.

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