Sunday, January 4, 2015

Eggplants and Old Books

(Photo from First Root Farm!)
It is strange to work with teenagers. They need so much attention, but also so much independence to come into their own. In my work at the middle and high school libraries, I spend a lot of time walking the balance between being invisible and being present at a moments notice. It is, very much, like being a catcher in a field of rye—just in the right place and time when they need to be caught before some lousy cliff or something.

Students who last year came to me with their anxieties and fears about graduating, about the injustices of the world beyond high school, who I laughed with, gave tissues to when their dream school rejected them, I do not know where any of them have landed.

This, I believe, is largely how it ought to be. I think of my students as sweetly as I think of the eggplants and peppers I labored over on the farm last summer. We pulled out weeds, harvested fruits, sold the food, tilled over and replanted another crop. Each thing was what it was, needing what it needed from us, giving what it gave, until its time and season passed and another one began. I loved the product, but was not particularly attached to any single fruit, and always enjoyed the process over the outcome.

In all that I have read and learned and tried to absorb Koanic lessons of non-attachment and being present and mindfulness, nothing compares with the certain knowledge of relative insignificance learned by mentoring students and nurturing vegetables.

We—the students and I, the vegetables and I, anyone and anything on earth—are only together for a brief stage of each other’s journeys. It’s very freeing, and calls into question all sorts of other thoughts on permanence.

One of my main tasks in the libraries lately has been weeding obsolete books from the collection. As a writer, I try to not think too much that I am casually chucking out someone’s passionate life work, just because no one has read it in twenty or thirty years. I try to not think of the drafts, of the late nights writing, of the doubt and despair and revisions and rejections that go into making a book out of an idea. I get Robert Frost in my head, reminding me that “nothing gold can stay,” and that makes it much easier to let go.

We are not an archive—the idea is to be able to further students’ research in concert with the academic curriculum. And so, to make space for what is topical and relevant and useful, we discard and donate pounds and pounds of books. There is nothing quite like recycling “authoritative” texts to remind oneself that time and tide wait for no one, etc.

Besides, in the emptiness of the shelves, in the magic of biology that lets a new crop grow, in a curious student encountering the world, there is so much potential.

Everything that lives needs to grow and change and evolve—knowledge, libraries, humans, love, eggplants, all of it. My usual instinct is to hold on to everything—and I have tried this in so many ways and times and places—and this inability to let go clutters everything up, my heart, my bookshelves, my sweater drawer, and so on. Letting go, even a little, creates wonderful spaces for unknown possibilities.

Cultivating these ideas of being present in the moment, not becoming too attached to or defined by the transient, making space for new knowledge and passions, etc. all of this is only the tip of a very large iceberg in how to be happier, kinder, more ethical, sustainable and all the other good qualities I believe that we sorely need to go forward in a new year in an unceasingly challenged world.

Scrunched up under the root of the world’s various angers and sorrows—climate change, human rights, economic inequity, religious violence, and all the many places where these horrors bleed into one—is a sense of insufficiency. Someone, somewhere, at the heart of all of this feels that they do not have enough of something vital, and so the hoarding of resources and power begins and cracks the world into billions of haves and have-nots.

In the release of letting go of objects and expectations, fears and anticipations, I find that I am able to pare my life ever better down to what is necessary and sufficient, to be present and involved in the activities and relationships that are fruitful and valuable. It feels self-contained and openly mobile, rather than needy and stagnant and sad. I try to be like this, rather than chase what is not or focus on a dearth, rather than a well-loved glut. The act of letting go is an active choice for what you retain, what you possess. At the least, this focus on the positive of having, rather on the negative of lacking, is a good place start.

At the most, it may make a world of difference.

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