Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Strings and Pearls

The image of the best moments as beads or golden bubbles or pearls that stand out and float above the more ordinary times has been circling around my head for a while. I think of those as semi-detached fractals of time and space and people when everything that seems like love and light coalesces.
And then I think of those moments as beads along some rosary, remembrances to click through like prayers when the good fight gets tougher.
The phrase “more string than pearls,” always seems beautifully pregnant with disappointment, sort of stoically accepting, anticipating, the hard and gray times. The string, the mundane, is boring, but must be lived through, to get to the successful pearls of glory.
At the end of my summer on the farm, I got into a great conversation with some of our CSA members. They work at a different local prep school than I, and, as they picked up their vegetable share one week, we talked about the things we hope for with our students. We—the not-quite-hippies with the vested interest in local organic vegetables—all seemed to be similarly bound to work on waking our various students up to the possibilities and curiosities of the world. We all want to focus on helping them learn to ask questions, not to provide answers.
In a world that seems increasingly, terrifyingly, bent on spoon feeding identity and opinions to the masses, finding someone who is on the same page with struggling to put idealism into action is like meeting another pilgrim on a dark stretch of trail.
It was a lovely moment, a pearl, the kind where I find myself putting my hand on my heart a lot, grinning, and saying “Oh, me too!” It is a relief at not, in this, being alone.
Of course, we’re never alone in these struggles, but some days it certainly feels like we are each the sole outpost of sanity in a society that seems far too focused on defining people by their inadequacies, and offering consumer goods and services as the surest means to alleviate those failings, the surest path to success.
These same lovely people, emerging friends, sent me a copy of the writer John Elder’s Last Lecture before he retired from Middlebury College. The title of the talk is “Freeing Education from Success.” I love it—Thoreau and Mary Oliver and Darwin and the Japanese poet Basho all tied together in a conversation about how to be in the world. Elder talks—he seems too joyous for the sterner verb “lectures”—about the dangerous thread of our current culture that defines success for each of us, rather than us each drawing our own understanding of a full and good life out of ourselves. And the role that education plays in all of this misunderstanding of what success might look like. How we need to be wistful, because “if we long for something, it draws us into the world.”
Success, as described by Elder, is an active amalgam of wonder and compassion, curiosity and engagement, community and humility, wistfulness and awareness. Success begins to sound not like a pinnacle to be gained, not a prize at the end of the road at all, but like a well-woven way of being in the world. Success is how and where we are, not as much how and where we will be, or would like to be.
The pearls—the best times—will always stand out. No life can be so rich that the special moments do not pop with shimmering intensity. I painted a bunch of my best moments as beads on a string a while back. What I didn’t do, though, was pay attention to the string. That, now, I think is where attention is deserved. The string is the mundane, the daily. It is the how we are in the world, truly and frequently. Our success is in those ordinary times as much as our brilliant joys are in the memorable contained moments.
To have a well-lived and happy-though-not-perfect string connecting all the golden bubbles and pearls of our best times—I can’t think of a more successful way to be in the world. Living like this won’t ward of the darkness and the challenges—trouble, frustration, heart-break and fear will still and always come your way—but it does help to change the scale of success you seek and focus on the moment you are living in, rather than the nebulous one you live for.
Personally, I want to make the world an ever better place while enjoying and celebrating all the good that is already here—from mountains and oceans to eggplants and our human capacity for love. It is a grand and lofty goal. Sometimes, that bar seems awfully high—I don’t know how to measure if I am succeeding towards that end or no, and so I take in of the general insecurity of our culture and assume that if I am not a blazing success with my name in lights, several award winning books, and a million dollars in my bank account, I must be a failure.
Most days, though, I can look around at the life I live and see that, by the measure of success I know in my bones, I am already there and here—enjoying and celebrating and improving my and the slightly larger world, little by little.
I think about this when I bake bread, ride my bike, eat vegetables from the farm, meet fellow educational idealists, talk to kids about books, or write. I’m lucky to not be in a phase of struggling to find work and meaning in my life—I’ve been there and imagine I will be again—and here will always be a thousand insecurities and frustrations in life (student loans, dog vomit, emotional turmoil, etc.), but, when I stop to notice, that even the mundane fibers making up the string between the glorious pearls are fairly wonderful, this is so much more joy to be had.
What is more successful than that?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

One Morning in Maine

Last weekend, I ran away to the wild places and beloved people.

I first went, alone, to the coast of Maine, to the beach and geography of some of my earliest memories. This particular beach was where I learned what it is to fall in love with a place. In my experience, falling in love with a place is not so very different from falling in love with another person or finding a piece of your soul in words or art or music—it is as if your bloody muscle of a heart melts away and a space of light appears in your chest instead. The world comes in, the world goes out, alongside your breathing and while all may not be right in the world, for these ragged moments, all is right with you in the world. There is a tremendous sense of exhilarated belonging, of security and wild possibility.

I do not know of anything more beautiful than this.

The world, including this beach, has changed since I was first in love with it. Walking along the sands, I noted the absence of soft, rolling dunes and the presence of sterner, sturdier rock walls. The summer homes and cottages, the steep piney hills beyond, the continuance of all these things depends on how much sand is or isn’t lost to the hungry tides.

The thought of losing this place, of the waters rising and rising and erasing something so dear to me from the map used to keep me awake at night. I don’t relish the thought now, either. And it is not that I have reconciled myself to the loss, or the threat of loss. I am not, nor will I ever be, at stoic peace with the sea changes and erratic weather and melting glaciers and roulette-wheeled seasons, and all the rest that climate change means. It is not, though, the climate change itself that keeps me awake at night. It is our responsibility for these horrors that keeps me hungry for people to band together with and live out solutions, rather than dithering in fear and mourning and denial.

But, never mind that. We all know what is at stake. We, each of us, carry something known or unknown in our hearts that is the seed of all fears and actions regarding how to save the world. I am constantly surprised and buoyed by what is stronger than these fears. To wit, even as my sometimes weary and mournful eyes looked at the changing coastline, the better parts of me were hyperaware of being in the right place, of feeling as in love with this little corner of the world as I have ever been.

The ocean was a dark dark blue, glinting with the red-gold light of the setting sun. Where the waves crested and crashed, the water became the misty bottled green of seaglass. Frumpy uncomfortable looking adolescent seagulls swooped around. The beeches and maples on the otherwise evergreen hills behind and the islands before me lit up like fires that will never be extinguished. Looking far out of the islands, scrubby deep red plants—blueberries and poison ivy and sedges and the same hardy plants I love from mountain summits—clung to the edges of the sun-bleached rocks. The wind was cold coming off the water, the sort of breeze that smells of frost, while also carrying the scent of woodfires in the surrounding cabins and cottages. My hands felt chapped in my mittens and my face was wind and sun and smile strained by the time I got back to the car.

I lingered too long, perhaps, although it didn’t feel like long enough. This is the thing about love, tearing yourself away feels impossible, even if you are cold and hungry and needing to find a place to camp. My plan had been to camp as close to the beach as possible, so I would fall asleep to the sound of the waves and wake up to the sunrise.

Much as I might try, my life is not consistently as poetic as I find sunlight on the water to be. I spent the night curled up in the back of my car, with my sea-damp dog, in the relative safety of the L.L.Bean parking lot in Freeport.

On the plus side, when I woke up at 3:45 with numb legs and a kinked shoulder, there was no possible thing to do but get back to the beach in time for sunrise.

I walked down to the mouth of the Kennebec in the pearly darkness that comes just before sunrise and hunkered down on a log of driftwood.

And slowly, there it came. The darkness faded like a healing bruise, the star-like light of the lighthouses grew less bright as the sky pinked and purpled and blued back to day. I could see dear tracks along the sand, see the birds as they flew around cawing in the dawn chorus. A black bird—a cormorant? a sparrow in silhouette?—flew up the river.

By the light of the rising sun and the riffles of the dawn wind, the current of the river was visible, rushing to the open sea. The bird, whatever it was, flew up the river. For a moment, I could see the opposite forces together, like retrograde motion or an Escher drawing. The water goes one way, the wings the other and it seems as if they cannot possibly exist together.

Yet, they do.

Now is a time to be schooled in such beautiful, active paradoxes. There is so much—too much—in the discussion and actions of climate change that is focused on what is lost, what will be lost. There is fear and mourning and grief and anger, and all of that is warranted. But, at the same time, the world is not dead yet, and often our fear at what may be builds a premature coffin around what is.

Along my most beloved shoreline, there are changes from what I knew. What matters more, though, is what has not changed. The way the sunlight hits the water at all hours, the eternal and always fresh crush and crash of the water, and the feeling of being always in love with the intangible here of this place.

We must immerse ourselves as often in the wildness and variety and love and beauty of the world as we do in fear and facts and figures of threats to and hard realities of this world. I believe, with the certainty of tidal sunrise and the clarity of mountain frost, that doing so is vital to the salvage and survival of all that really matters. Sure pure love drives purer and purer actions, stronger and wiser choices.

And, conveniently, such immersion is eternally, ecstatically joyful. What is truly, cleanly, lovingly good for the soul is also for the world.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Qualitative & Quantitative Sustianability

I was recently talking with some high school students about sustainability. Like a lot of schools and institutions, the school where I work has latched onto the enigmatic idea that they should be more sustainable.

This is as admirable a goal as I can contemplate. The challenge, however, comes in determining what that means, and how we can all go from the hopeful work on paper to the practices and routines of our lives.

In Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael the narrator leaves one of his first sessions with Ishmael—who is a sort of eco-historian philosophy tutor and life mentor, among other things—in a foul foul mood. The trouble is that Ishmael has given the narrator an assignment. If there is an assignment, then it stands to reason that there is a syllabus of some sort, which implies an ending that approaches, a linear goal that will be attained with due diligence and scholarly application to the task at hand.

The narrator fears the end of his course in saving the world. I understand that—the feeling of finally finding something, only to know it is limited is heartbreaking. On the bright side, the world will always need saving and celebrating, so our labors will always be needed.

What sticks with me now, thinking about Ishmael and the regret of a syllabus, is that we are so culturally locked into linear patterns towards a specific goal. With most institutional and formal efforts towards sustainability, we are still adhering to this formula. If School A, for example, has this number of solar panels, that number of students and faculty active in environmental causes, this percentage of bike commuters, and this amount of local food, then it can be pronounced “sustainable,” or at least more sustainable than School B, which doesn’t hit any of those tidy metrics. 

This is treating our aggressively unsustainable culture as a quantitative problem that can be solved by neat rows of records and logical measurements. I see the underpinnings of our crises as qualitative at heart, and so must the solutions be.

Underneath the checklists and initiatives, there is the eternal truth that we are responsible for the state of the world, and we are letting its beauty and power and potential down. There are none but our own skinny shoulders to fix this, no matter how many sustainability studies get funded, reports published, or awards handed out.

We know this. This is why everyone gets snippy and panicky about how much greener they are than others, or defensive when talking about carbon footprints, or why some people lie awake at night, knowing that they could do more for the state of the world. We can have a thousand marches, rallies, vigils, festivals, acts of disobedience, degrees, policies, and metrics of environmental and social success, but until we can reconcile what we each do and live into upon waking each morning, when we align the real and practical actions of our lives with our deepest knowledge and highest hopes, we will continue to live cruelly and always hungry for something.

This is not a sustainable way to be.

It is difficult, though, to know where and how to start, addressing the qualities that can be revised and corrected, learned and remembered in order to calm our scared and rapacious ways of life and bring something simpler, calmer, happier and more sustainable to life. There isn’t a syllabus, there isn’t a handbook, there is not a linear progression that gets us—all of us, even the recalcitrant people who haven’t had the courage or support or love to handle waking up, or taking a first step after coming to face the challenges of now—towards simpler, cleaner lives.

Now is where I ought to offer five to seven tidy points for sustainability. The truth is that I don’t know. Sustainability is a one-size fits all type deal with an easy answer. I do know about environmental systems—about the moving pieces, the complex relationships, the entirely sublime Rube Goldberg type system that is ecology. And I suspect that being a sustainable society looks something like that—an ever-evolving balance of incongruities.

This is a messier answer than most institutions are looking for in their search for sustainability. In that mess, in the fluidity and humble recognition for flexibility and revision, I believe that there is a greater framework to follow than any organized and linear metric. Certainly, we can use the quantitative research—upgrade solar panels, increase efficiency of transport systems, and all the other great changes that come from having good information. The key, though, is to use the science in service to the heart, not the other way round.

As a bonus, beyond linear and back to an ecological approach—there is no end to what we seek. The clear delight I find in word by word, step by step, friendship by friendship building towards a better, kinder world to be the greatest source of purpose and joy in my life. In a quantitative approach to sustainability, I would worry that this sense would fade once the goal is achieved—I would have to graduate from the course, as it were. With a qualitative approach, I know that this is the core and essence of sustainability, and it will never fade.