Elementary School Journal

Is there something I don’t know or understand that would make it easier to accept the kind of indoctrination that goes on in the classroom I’m attached to?

It may be a sort of arrogance born out of my own privileged, creative education that makes me see this place as a graveyard for young minds and souls. I have no proof that my ideals would serve these kids better than what they’re getting. And this may be a kind of toughening process that helps the children deal with the world they’re going into better than my soft, curiosity-based system.

Form and Function/Here is a sloth. State the form and function of the arms. Don’t linger on the image out of interest./Make the point and move on to plants./Review for the test: Function of each part, roots, petals, stamen, leaves, pistil, sepals. Fill out the sheet so we can be done with plants./Later we’ll finish with crawfish and be done with them. /Be still and do your work. The sooner you’re done the sooner we can move on.

Write I come to school ready and prepared to work. Write this 25 times. If you talk we’ll make it 25 more.

What I hear in this is: Boredom is the price of this thing called Education./I am as bored with this as you are. We are stuck here so let’s get through it till we’re released./Learning is important and will make you better people later on./The world is made of dead, isolated parts. The more you master these dead parts to better you are at “school.”

We ask children to obey an external authority that requires them to be quiet, still, and attentive, but we do nothing to help them develop their inner capacity to be quiet, still, or attentive. On the contrary, we paper the classroom walls with posters, slogans, rules, and isolated bits of information so that everywhere their eyes come to rest they find more random data. The sheer quantity of visual stimulation overwhelms the meaning that might be found there and actively counteracts the goal of increasing the attention span. We give students an abundance of data, but no guidance on how to find meaning.

I’ve made some notes about how I might teach these children if it were my position to do so, but I’ll hold back on writing them out. It’s easy for me to smear the well-intentioned efforts of others who have given themselves to this hard work as a career, when I am only a visitor, dropping in and out for short periods. To the extent I fail to acknowledge the affection that’s communicated by the teachers to the students, I ask forgiveness.

Like the rest of us, these children will create or discover meaning in their lives as best they can according to what their spirits, their families, the community and the times allow. If I can breathe life in the classroom, if I can hold them, their teacher, and the school in the light of love and faith, that will be my contribution.

 

The Rocking Boat

billowing golden clouds

The boat is rocking. Which way should I lean?
Should I hold tight to the boat, be one
with the boat, have faith that the boat will hold us
as it was made to do?
Or should I try to level the boat? When other riders
jolt from side to side, try to direct our course, should I join with those who counter their every move
with equal force?
And the water—
the waves carrying us the gods know where,
raising, then negating what’s under us,
and water gathering around
our feet, at first a bother and now, deepening,
it becomes a third force in the boat—
it seems willing to take us down as one.

I remember how I once loved being in a boat.
I knew fear then, too, but greater than that I knew
a trust in my companions. Together,
balancing, moving in and on the waters
which held our bulky forms so lightly we
laughed, and had to wonder….

 

 

Alchemy, of a sort

Now that  _____  has posted his news on Facebook and I can see what he’s feeling about the ordeal he is going through—or what he’s willing to share about it—I’m feeling proud and grateful for the family I was born into and the families we’ve made.

I’m proud of these people for their equanimity and acceptance and for the generosity they’ve shown throughout their lives. I’m proud of the way they’ve done what every person has to do in this lifetime, which is to piece together and craft a way of living that serves other people and tells a story that is worthy of passing on.

I’m especially in awe of the people who have found a way to give a warmer kindness, love, and attention to others than was given or modeled to them in their younger days. That’s a form of alchemy, turning humble ingredients into something higher and more refined. That people still do this, in a time when all the worldly forces tell us to celebrate the lower self, to grab what we can and go—this is proof of spiritual powers to me. I’m thankful for those powers and for the people around me who express them so gracefully.

I haven’t made peace with the circumstances leading to this realization, not at all—but sometimes people remind you why you not only love but admire them, and the world feels like a better place in spite of the circumstances.

 

Lah ti dah, la la laa…

Our job at this stage of our development, says R. Steiner, is to transform our feeling life through the I.  Huh?  What what?

The “I” is our higher ego, the one that outlives our physical body. The feeling life is the entire body of likes and dislikes, identities and aspirations, tastes, judgments, attachments, and impulses, both noble and low, that we tote around with us. And the work of the I in transforming that body of feelings is somehow connected with the deepest part of the original Christian message. That’s about as far as I can see into that.

Oh, and to get there we’re supposed to work with imaginations. These are the little (or big) insights we receive about the way things work, or thought pictures, or events we bring to life through our thinking, and through our thinking we bring higher consciousness down into the world.

As for me, I know I’m not good at any meditative discipline. Maybe in the fall I can take something up again. All spring and summer I’ve been taking grace for granted—spending from my savings so to speak—and turning away from meditation with a will. I feel like there may be a reckoning for this at some time to come; but I also know at some level I’ve chosen it and will learn a lesson from whatever the consequence is. Of course, if I’ve done harm, or failed to do some good, through my lack of a practice, I hope for a chance to restore things in this life. (More grace, please?)

Even without a practice, I’m hungry all the time for a glimpse behind the curtain. So I’m hungering and at the same time refusing to do the main thing that might feed me. The hunger, or rather the eagerness for the experience of growth and living, tells me I’m not completely asleep, and I’m trying—trying, not mastering, but trying—to be silent more and let the world speak to me through its forms. I’m trying to observe things without naming them or explaining them. That is a kind of practice, more of an abstaining than a doing, and I know it’s like scattering seeds—some will grow, but only to the degree I’ve given them good soil to grow in. The rest are not wasted, of course, but their effect is much less than it could have been.

There you have it—Summer.

Fear Feeds Itself

Green leaves reflected on the rippling surface of a lake.

If I say love operates in the world as a force, what does that say about fear? Or is that the wrong way to ask? It assumes that love is an emotion, which makes it easier to view as a sentiment or even a chemical byproduct of our bodies. It also makes it on a level with simpler emotions.

So let’s say Love is a fundamental force, like gravity or magnetism. Fear, then? They say fear is the absence of love. But I don’t feel like love has gone from me even though I have fear.

It’s asking a whole lot to say we should live in these times without fear. Fear comes out of attachment and the longing to preserve things the way they are, or used to be. Maybe it comes from a lack of faith in the power of love, or in the spiritual helpers who work and weave in subtle ways around us. It may also mean we don’t really understand the gift of freedom, which we reduce to material, legalistic terms but don’t respect in a broader, spiritual way.

Whatever the source of fear is, we have to ask now whether we can be free of it. It has begun to look like we should fear Fear itself, as though fear is being used as a weapon or a tool to keep the people in a state of emotional unrest. In this way it doesn’t matter which side you’re on, like them or despise them, pro or con, you’re resonating with fear and high-strung emotions and thereby easily manipulated. It feeds itself.

There are going to be a lot of changes that we can take as gut-punches in the coming few years: unchecked assaults on the environment, on social supports, on civil rights, on human dignity and (if we go back to war) on human lives. The effort to return America to greatness masks a desire to go backwards, to undo what modest progress we had been making toward being responsible, accountable people. We can take these all at the material level and live in a condition of chronic despair, or we can cultivate the seeds of all the higher impulses that were, and always will be, moving us forward.

There is a physical narrative and there is a spiritual narrative. Everything we do and see has a corresponding story that unfolds invisibly. In the material world we see the battles as Right vs. Wrong, but in the invisible world the stories play out between Love and Less-than-Love, Wisdom and Less-than-Wisdom. The more we seek our news in these stories the more we will be free from despair.

No Screen

I’m looking at the news coverage of a man in solider’s camouflage who got in a scuffle with the pro-immigration marchers here in Louisville. Hoo boy, I think, this’ll be good. I can’t wait to hear what idiot hate-speak comes out of his mouth! But then they put the microphone to him and pffft, he turns out to be intelligent. He actually makes sense; he just disagrees with the other people there. How disappointing!

 

Can we take some time to see ourselves in a different way from our common view? Let us see if having our faith inform both our attitudes and our actions can give us that elusive sense of hope we look to for sustenance.

Taking some time: Even the act of stepping back from the urgency of opinions to look for another viewpoint alters us.

The question we are used to asking ourselves is, “What do I think about that?” We look at a situation–something in the news, for instance–and form an opinion on it. To a greater or lesser extent, then, depending on our interest, we develop a “stake” in the situation. We develop a greater or lesser concern for how the situation comes out. Having views on the conditions of the world becomes part of the structure of our lives–part of the dwelling we construct for ourselves. Forming and holding views becomes a ritualized habit that contributes to our very identity.

A different question shifts the focus from an idealized view to one of participation: “What do I do?”

The atomizing effects of our cultural evolution, and of our mass media and technology choices, reinforce a tendency to see the world as something “out there” that happens to us, around us. We tend to retreat into our minds and view the world as if on a screen. Asking “What do I do?” helps to lower the screen and put us in the scene with all the other players.

Mother Teresa famously said, “There are no great deeds. Only small deeds done with great love.” Deeds done out of love have the immediacy of impulse because love is brought forth in the moment. Yesterday’s calculation, or the opinions I formed of the people around me and their actions, do not produce the effects of love in the present. In our time only the conscious application of our will to love can have a transformative effect.

“What do I do?” means, “What could my impulse to love do to make this situation better?” Rather than separating people through our judgments, and in doing so defining ourselves as “different” and “other” from them, we might look at the healing power we have right at hand at every moment. And what happens in these moments, when we consciously apply love in our interactions in place of judgment, takes place within ourselves.

Let’s not mistake love that arises from our identification with other people for a kind of pitying condescension that comes from moralistic judgment. Moralism only reinforces our separation. It’s through our ability to see “the others” in ourselves, and ourselves in them–an ability that’s cultivated–that the screens come down. It’s then that we open ourselves to something not of our own creation. When we sacrifice our will to judge or correct others in the moment, we enact love and generosity.

Likewise, in looking to faith to inform our actions, let’s not consider faith as merely the dictates of our particular religious creeds. We will not embody faith by falling back on rules or recitations. Rather, we look for the fruits of these within us and hope to express them in what we think and do. Rudolf Steiner talked about faith as not just a sufficiency of love, enough to fill the heart, but an overflowing of love. I think the emphasis is on the action.

The question I feel I should pose myself every day (many times) becomes: “What would it feel like to stream love out like a burning sun, to everyone I encounter?” I will try to construct a new dwelling out of this.

 

Old poems never die…

Many-colored rectangles colliding peaceably at angles, with a broad stripe winding across on a diagonal.

Here is a poem from two decades ago that still has some resonance for me as I try to pay my debts with love. I’ve posted a bunch more of these old soldiers and am making them march around again (see the link to Poems up near the top of the page). If you’re interested, please go see them so their efforts won’t be in vain. (Thank them for their service, you know, that kind of thing.)

 

       After the Demonstration
Nothing makes me as lonely as being told
how unified we are. The cell swirls
in jubilation and I am expelled into orbit.
There is great freedom in wanting different 
from anyone else. In my life, I have evolved:
First I despised the haters. Next I looked down
on those who despised them. Now, adrift and rolling away,
I have the next person trapped in me, and I despise 
my righteous isolation, my mirrors, my need to judge.

The Pentecostals (whom  I now love
for their holy separation) cut through the rain
seemingly on their own band: He made a change
in my life. He made a change in My Life.
My wheels keep beat for me, as if pulling me down
will make it so. For a moment I slip back to the world
and am jarred by the normalness of myself,
a man in a jacket. Possibly a complete vessel.

If I could prolong that motion--grow
from human to artwork--I would long
to drop in the world's pocket, wait
there to be found and judged, yes, held

in the sweet above and below of the human world.
But I am away, untethered, again--
Adam. Where a word would have saved me, I veered
toward loneliness. It seems this will not 
be the day my wary heart finds
a back door to its categories, lets in
the next person, the one for whom
no body has been made yet.

Am I That?

The voices we need to hear now are the voices of compassion. We have to move past detailing our differences in ways that isolate us.

The crisis is ours to work with. There is no one to take care of it but us, because we ourselves are the crisis! We can’t look at our politicians, our “leading class,” with contempt and despair, because we have allowed them the power they have. And that is as it should be. They may be an expression of self-serving and corruption in our own souls, and truly when we look at them we are looking at ourselves.

We look at ourselves, too, when we look at each other in the common run of life. The heroic or saintly people who give freely with no expectation of return, or conniving cheats steeping in greed and malice, or everyone in between (all those whose basic decency we recognize but whose actions we are eager to condemn)–each is a version of our humanity that we have brought into being.

The message “Thou art That“–the call to see yourself in the other and act out of a feeling of shared humanity –is more than enough to occupy our thoughts with for a lifetime. But consider it as more than a call for compassion and fellowship. Consider that, in your reaction to these words, “Thou art That,” you contribute something, however small, to making the world the way it is. If your thought is, “No, there’s nothing in common with that and me,” or “Yes, I admit I can see something of myself there,” you enact a small moment of either separation or union, antipathy or sympathy, between yourself and the world. This doesn’t have to be called good or bad, but it occurs. Knowing that it matters, then, we can act as if it matters.

Omnipotence

Gather round, campers, our discussion today is about God allowing suffering and evil to exist. The fact that terrible things happen all the time leads many of us to reject the idea of God on the grounds that no loving deity could permit such misery to occur.

But is God a puppet master? Or an unfeeling entity who observes us dispassionately?

Because we assume God is omnipotent, we let our definition of the word govern our concept of God. Our model is based on our own social constructs, such as the Boss or CEO–unlimited power but also ultimate responsibility for what happens.

If God is not other in the same way we perceive other people to be, then different rules apply. Think of “God” not as a huge human with superpowers but as something that experiences existence through us, through this world. Then God is a fellow sufferer, sharing in the experience. But that is still a separation; it’s still describing God in human terms. So–don’t cling to that definition, which is false, but continue to accept that we can only approach the divine through human understanding, precisely because we are humans.

Do not personify God (define God in human terms), but know that the way we perceive our existence by its nature leads us to see ourselves as separate and discrete; meaning we don’t easily come to a way of apprehending “God” except as another discrete being, separate from us. This aspect of our perception–the separation–is a necessary product of our freedom.

The prime value of our existence is freedom. It’s what separates us from the animals and the angels. Love is the transformative, active element–the medium in which we move. It is more than mushy, nice stuff we’re supposed to spread around. Love is the ground of all existence–mineral, animal, human, spiritual. Freedom is the uniquely human piece, and our charge is to exercise it with care for others and ourselves. To see God as puppeteer, or as controlling everything and all things, is to deny humans our purpose in existing.

There to be Seen (fiction)

Abstract image, both dense and watery, solid and liquid.

Is it possible? As happens in dreams, I watched the strange demonstrations carried out by my office mates with the kind of dulled surprise that suggests I knew about all of it before, unconsciously, and was reacting not to the fact of the thing but to the marvelous details of it now revealed. So that now, the more troubling question for me is not, How did such disturbing creations come to exist, and be in our possession, but rather, How did I already know about them and remain quiet?

I’ll grant that my workplace is a polite one, where we go along without raised voices or outbursts of emotion. This condition prevails without external compulsion; I think it reflects the maturity of our group members, and, if I can express this properly, the benefit of education on one’s ability to restrain the unhelpful impulses that naturally arise. I don’t imply that we are a simmering cauldron of repressed resentments, either, waiting for release. We are amicable, and we hold amicability as a value. Remaining considerate of each other, then, is more of an exercise of our values than a rankling constraint.

That some of my colleagues should have knowledge—secrets, even—held in small groups, to be used as needed—this I accept as a matter of course. I do not need to feel the least misused if I learn that A., B., and C. have been collaborating on a new procedure that will soon be put into effect, or that Z. was selected to give a presentation instead of me. I trust, and believe the others do, too, that all our efforts will be directed toward the good of the department and our mission. The exception—an understandable one, I used to think—would be if I found myself being the only one in the department excluded from knowledge that was circulating among all the rest.

The event I speak of doesn’t bear that stamp precisely. But because the only aspect of it that I can lay claim to understanding, or fully recollecting, is my own self-perception, I will try to lay out in their subtle distinctions the shades of my reactions. While this may seem a thin soup for subject matter, compared to the fantastic things witnessed in the event itself, still I make it a condition of your admission to this spectacle that you enter through me and I remain with you as your lens.

My first reaction, upon looking up from some work rather late one evening and seeing the startled faces of two female colleagues in the doorway, was this: They were not expecting me to be here at this time, and as a result I am about to be given knowledge too soon. Said another way, my colleagues neither willed it not withheld it, but they would now have to show me things I had not been fully conditioned to see.

And so it was. Wordlessly, or rather with unspoken words, my colleagues B. and C. moved to a file cabinet and bent low to open the lowest drawer. Then, with a solemn, practiced movement, C. extended her hand at the edge of the drawer. Though the movement was unfamiliar to me and hardly suggestive of anything in itself, the first pangs of expectation arose in me.

In less than a moment the first miniature pair of hands appeared over the edge of the drawer and draped over C.’s long, outstretched finger. Another pair immediately followed, and another in identical fashion. When C.’s finger was filled the pairs of tiny pale hands still came up and fell over the open drawer’s edge until it too was filled.

All this unfolded in a matter of seconds, if our measure of time can be said to apply there. Something about the cooperative regularity of their movements suggested that the little beings to whom these frail hands belonged were no more part of our world of time than they were part of our usual physical reality.

With slow assurance C. lifted her hand from the drawer and stood. I saw then that the beings, which hung without protest from her finger, were nearly as human in form as their perfect little hands would suggest. Nearly, I say; their bodies, slender and apparently identical, had a liquid quality, an infantile simplicity that was not hardened as much as human bodies are.

I’m sorry that one of my first reactions was one of envy. What it was that I envied, I don’t know, but I felt in a subtle way visited by an animal presence within me that if left unchecked could erupt in scales on my skin. It was not merely envy of my friend’s long, graceful finger, suited by nature to this purpose and so unlike the fat, knobbed fingers of my own hands. It was that and something more besides.

I suppose it was in like manner that all the lithe, liquid beings were carried from their drawer in the cabinet. In truth, I can only recall that my envy had yielded to concern for them. It was plain that they could not survive long in the environment we are accustomed to; indeed, it must be caustic to them.

My relief came in another instant when I witnessed the pool in which they were being laid. From then, each astonishment tumbled over the one before: a swimming pool, as narrow and long as a banquet table, and lanes, and tiny pennants dangling above; and the undine beings, avidly swimming, noiselessly chopping the water; and most paralyzing of all the wonders, a presiding master of the games—a mermaid; larger than the others and solidly formed, which, because of her vivid color and material solidity, arrested my vision more than any of the surrounding spectacle.

A brief description of her will suffice, because you already have in mind what a mermaid must be. She was no different from the storybook mermaid with crayon-yellow hair, glinting emerald-green scales, and a recumbent posture suggesting that gravity, not the atmosphere, was her primary physical opponent. She lay either in or on a cordoned area near the pool’s center, at a right angle to the lanes, and her actions consisted entirely of quick motions of her head and chin, her shoulders, and her eyes, which served variously to alert, check, or instruct the swimmers. By way of describing her role, I offer only the poor comparison to a brisk head of servants operating in a large and tightly run household.

You must condemn or forgive me now for my failure to provide details of sequence, or for the abrupt changes that leave scenes unresolved. I warned you at the beginning that we would follow a map not of events in my memory but of their imprints in my soul. I now fear you won’t be able to answer the question I started with, Is it possible? with the direction I am taking; but we will see.

What of my office companions? They—the ones present—watched with a knowing intentness; they were interested without being fascinated by the spectacle of beings from fairy realms made manifest and enacting a most human kind of ritual. Surely the creatures gained nothing from this unless it was the joy of service; yet my associates displayed not the least enjoyment nor any other emotion. I describe their general look as one of expectation born of experience.

And what of me? I hovered—perhaps swayed in the better word—both figuratively and in truth at the doorway to this discovered world.

It would never be true to say that if one is half crying, half laughing then one is on the whole at rest. The mixture, rather, will swirl like water and oil until two parts separate. I swayed; I held the mixture together; and I felt more watery and transparent with each moment I stayed.

Here is what happened then: There was a racetrack, and, like the pool, it was all in order, sized to the room, completely unlikely and complete. The creatures were set in their lines. Already they were nearly dried. We watched with keener interest than before. There was something like eating in our interest now. The creatures ran the track on legs that became more bent and desiccated as they went. Some did not finish but came to a halt in mid-stride. Two of them reached the finish line and froze in place—wrinkled and crisp, bent, cryptic, light as insects or the skeletons of birds, not recognizable as anything that had ever had beauty.

My friend M. was next to me, though I hadn’t known it before. We saw each other. Looking at the creatures, the track, our companions, together we began to come solid again. In silent companionship we chose something, and in doing so I felt myself again in my form. The whole perplexing scene was again outside of me. It burned away as does water on a heated stone. As I left I was looking at my own skin, even as the memory was evaporating from me.

Now I take back the question, Is it possible? For you, I hope it is not. For me, it is. I feel the grip and gravity of the world and have abetted it. I’ve seen sacrifice, the consumptive powers of salt and air, and taken them lightly. Though nothing has changed in the outward manners between my coworkers and me, I am wary now, wary that we will take too much; that I may let down my guard and not love them well enough, not give, out of myself, enough; that because I could fail to try, I, and we, could do a kind of harm we had no suspicion of, though it was always there to be seen.

 

First Kill (fiction)

Zwei Schafe by Franz Marc. Painting of two sheep, one standing, one lying down.

Well, I killed my first man today. We were going hand-to-hand in an inhuman, bestial throng, worse than I’d possibly imagined, in Electronics. I truly didn’t know if I would have what it takes when it came to the moment of truth, but when it came–him or me, right there–the prime directive was front and center, the only lesson that matters: Commit. Don’t leave anything in the tank. Down he went, and I’m relieved to say there was no imploring in his eyes, just a kind of cold respect, before the barely audible whoosh as something like his soul left him.

I can’t say glad is the word, but I’m feeling fortunate to have my first kill on my first Black Friday. I suppose if I were a veteran of these things I would develop a hard shell, maybe even a strategic approach beyond simple raw survival instinct, and it would roll off me more quickly. But I was frightened–no shame in admitting it–and to lose my innocence early is super-preferable to waiting and wondering another year. I could even lose my resolve in another year–okay, it’s out there now–and have to force myself out into the fray from a need to prove myself, rather than in pursuit of a true objective, such as the deeply discounted floor model 42″ plasma screen with game console and surround I carried off today. That kind of self-doubt can erode you over time, and there’s no room for inner conflict in the heat of battle. The floors are littered with the bodies of those who had inner conflict. (I mean literally–just try carrying a 42″ TV and accessories, out of box, over people in various stages of exiting this world, who think nothing of clutching your leg or a dangling power cord in hopes of being dragged closer to the door and a final gasp of that chill outside air, the same air they cursed so bitterly all night while amassing by the entrance.)

I will confess, too, I’m relieved it wasn’t a woman. Mark this down, I will take on a woman, but I’ll say it out loud, they don’t fight fair. They will shiv you with a sharpened SUV key while using a toddler as a human shield, and then if you drop them, look up at you in a kind of surprise that says you cheated. I’ve seen that, and it is haunting, and a little disgusting.

So, like I said, first time out, first kill. I’m not one to attribute my successes to some divine favor, but I can’t help saying I feel blessed. I understand the deeper meaning of Thanksgiving now.

I expect the feeling to grow even stronger. I won’t lie, this was hard, and I think it will take weeks or maybe months for the memory to go away. In the meantime, I feel a great urge to do something nice, to pass the feeling along, even to someone I don’t know, maybe someone who doesn’t even deserve it.