On vision and its alternatives.

There was a heavy mist this morning, the kind that layers itself into a dense fog, wiping out the neighbors, the trees, the lane lines, everything but the headlights of approaching cars.  A morning like this takes faith: that you’ll see the sun again; that you’ll find your way; that terrifying or immovable objects won’t materialize before you.

The year I turned twenty-two, everything had changed for me.  I was in therapy; I had broken off a toxic long-term relationship; I was beginning to see with my own eyes and to understand that I had a heart.  (Note: graduate school is not always the best environment for this kind of learning, but you take what you get.)  It was wildly uncomfortable.  Feeling lost and alone and bold and exhilarated, I took off by myself over fall break, heading to the coast of Maine in my little Toyota and ultimately ending up at my dad’s little lakeside cabin in New Hampshire.  He was away, and I had the place all to myself.

The morning of my actual birthday, I awoke to a vague and even brightness: the gloaming before sunrise broadcast through a heavy fog.  It was cold enough for more layers than I had brought, and I buttoned my father’s old wool shirt over my own clothes.  After stoking up the woodstove against my return, I went out into the dew-soaked grass, along the mulch path to the canoe, overturned on its sawhorses.  I flipped it, thrilled to be handling a boat again, and lifted it by its gunwale down to the shore.  The water was one of those things you take on faith; until it holds you up, you can’t quite be sure it’s there.

I knew the shape of the lake, and the point of entry to the bog at one end.  I headed there, my j-strokes silent and sure in the stillness, my vision awake but helpless in the whiteness.  I felt the bog before I saw it, the scratching arms of swamp laurels against the canoe, the susurration of pickerelweed beneath the keel.  I spent a timeless hour in there, paddling slowly or not at all, soaking in the smells and sounds of the water and its creatures.  At last, hungry and aware that the mist was rising, I made my way back to open water, just as the sun turned yellow.  I watched the first breeze swirl the lifting fog, saw the water shift beneath it, a conversation so sure and swift I ached to belong to it.

I had no idea, you see, where I was, and no idea where I was going.  I was disembodied, alone in a craft I could both trust and handle, and entirely unclear on what was ahead.  It was when I began to see: what’s ahead is not, perhaps, what matters.

Barbara Kingsolver says, in Animal Dreams, “What keeps you going isn’t some fine destination.  It’s just the road you’re on and the fact that you know how to drive.”  I always thought the destination mattered, too, that if you didn’t have a map and a plan and ideally a pretty firm schedule, you’d never get anywhere.  And that seemed to work okay for me until, oh, thirty-five.  But then I had to learn it all over again: being here, and loving it, is how we live.

We complain about the fog because it makes it harder for us to see.  But “seeing” is perhaps the problem.

Kingsolver again, this time in Prodigal Summer, says that moths fly all crazy-like because they lack binocular vision.  We humans focus on a thing in the distance and head for it in a straight line.  This is our paradigm for progress, for productivity, even for pleasure.  We “achieve,” with all the interwoven senses of attaining and possessing and completing.  But what else do we filter out in order to make this kind of movement, this achievement, possible?  A moth moves not by vision but by olfaction, testing the air at impossibly frequent intervals for the highest concentration of the scent they desire.  They adjust their flight path accordingly, first one way, then the next.  And while they look lost, confused, even foolish to our straight-line minds, they do find what they seek.

We, on the other hand, so often find what we thought we sought.  What we did once seek.  But our desires may have changed; we may have missed important possibles; the very air in which our “goal” hangs may be toxic in ways we simply could not see.

A little less light?  A little more fog?  A quieter, more sniffing-out approach?  A spot of stillness, where we let the light shine down however it will, and welcome it?  I can’t say.  And I wouldn’t, anyway.  But I will add that as I headed down the road this morning and the wind blew orange leaves from below my wipers, I smiled into the fog before me.

On wading in: Day 22. The things I’m still avoiding.

It is clear to me that this month has involved a lot more wading into life than usual.  It shows up in the games we play with the kids, the conversations we have together, the increased singing, the greater appreciation of what’s around me, the enhanced interest in our slow-food processes of homegrown goodness.  (Today, for example, we started off with pumpkin-oat waffles; enjoyed a fabulous leftover white-bean-and-buttercup-squash soup for lunch; found a rack of lamb in the downstairs freezer that we roasted with garlic and rosemary, accompanied by sliced broiled delicata squash and kale sauteed with garlic.  It’s a hardship.)

These are the areas of life that soothe me, that fill me up and calm me down.  And I’m glad I’ve learned to love those, to try to live within them, because for much of my life I would have coded such satisfaction as “boring,” not understanding the depth of joy and contentment and the peace that they bring.

But every so often I am reminded that there’s more to me than this.  There are big important issues that I want to work on, skills and gifts that ask me to do more.  I tend, lately, to suppress those, to nod and smile while focusing elsewhere.  It’s the spiritual equivalent of facebooking while your kids are talking.  And it’s one of the things that needs to change.

See, I’ve assumed all along that the Big Important Stuff cannot peaceably coexist with the daily habits of joy.  But it also seems true that perhaps they cannot peaceably coexist without one another.  So now I ask, again, what it looks like to bring them together.

Some aspects of that are already in place: public humanities work that seeks to explore how we can talk civilly with different others across disagreements; other public humanities work that offers novels as a way to understand our relationships to land, culture, and food; board work that tries to open new avenues to social impact instead of just programmatic outcomes.  But there’s more.  I wonder: would more and different kinds of writing be a way in?  A new blog on the horizon, this one focused on the professional concerns I seek to address?  Who knows.

For now, I am glad to have this discipline here and this set of lenses through which to examine the life I lead.  But I also see that I can rise to the risk I set for myself.  Perhaps it’s time to pose a new challenge: go to the heart of what matters in professional life as in personal.  It was my way for fifteen years; there’s no reason it can’t be again. The fact of being a parent makes me a better person, a clearer thinker, a more compassionate human.  And it also helps me see more clearly what matters and what doesn’t.  Instead of feeling pushed out of my professional world (as most of us do, who “step off the track”), perhaps I can just speak my truths wherever I am, whatever they may be.  Scary — but after all, what’s the alternative?  I worry about arriving at the end of this stage of life and feeling that I bottled up too much, that I didn’t participate in conversations I needed.  Fear of rejection, mostly, is what keeps me mute, and fear is what I’m most ready to release.

Sigh.  We’ll see how this shakes out.

On the challenge of being yourself

If you’ve never watched the movie “Center Stage,” you should.  It’s cheesy and beautiful and uplifting and all the right people get what they deserve.  It’s a dance movie that functions perfectly as a metaphor for life: dance the dance you have inside you, with all the effort and discipline you can muster.  And recognize when you’re trying to dance a dance that’s not your own.  And of course, roses and standing ovations follow immediately when you have the wisdom to be yourself.

But here’s where I’d add a few things: it’s not just about wisdom.  It’s just as much about opportunity, and foresight, and connections, and plain old good luck.  It’s about having sufficient freedom from constraints that you can actually DO the kinds of movement your own self demands.  And for most of us, absent full-time child-care and a perennially healthy bank balance, we just don’t get that freedom.  So what do we do?

I hate that all the best answers seem to revolve around “patience” and “self-love” and being “mindful.”  We need an Action Plan.  A Career-Planning Mom action figure.  She’d be a myth, like all the other super-heroes, but she’d have her s*#t together.  Perhaps I need a costume.

What are you taking care of?

Ezra, in the midst of pulling books off his shelf the other morning, turned to me and announced: “When I grow up, I am going to take care of giraffes.”  Then he turned to his brother, who was standing on Ezra’s bed with his tiny face pressed to the window: “Malachi, what are you going to take care of when you grow up?”

We are invited to think about our work in a lot of ways – what we do, how much money we make, what industry we are part of, what sector we contribute to.  But maybe this should be our core question: what, or who, do we take care of?

I used to teach a senior seminar on work as service; all the students were doing a non-profit internship of some kind as a way of exploring a field they might consider for the future.  And we all came together one evening a week to talk over readings on vocation, sustainability, meaning-making, community, and the sociology of work.  It was one of my gladdest times, one of the truest moments of vocation for me personally, because it brought together my best and favorite tools: teaching, critical reading, group discussion, exploratory writing, program-management, community partnership, administration in the original sense of caring for or ministering to.  And the seminar asked essentially Ezra’s question, though never so bluntly.  I wish it had.

As I write this, Jack Johnson’s “lullaby” version of “With My Own Two Hands” is on the stereo, and I realize that it names our common desire: to make the world a more beautiful place, a safer place, with our own two hands.  And open beside me on the scuffed blue kitchen table is Wendell Berry’s incomparable Hannah Coulter, and she is telling us of how in times of grief we stand by one another, we stand with one another: “He came to offer himself…to love us without hope or help” (55).  And eventually, she says “the comfort somehow gets passed around: a few words that are never forgotten, a note in the mail, a look, a touch, a pat, a hug, a kind of waiting with, a kind of standing by, to the end” (62).  What we build and what we hold up only exist by virtue of love, of ad-ministration; what would it look like if we named that truth?  If we thought of our work in the world as always a taking care?

William Sullivan wrote a brilliant book called Work and Integrity: the Perils and Promise of Civic Professionalism.  In it, he traces the civic roots of the professions – business began because people needed goods; lawyers happened because people needed a system to manage disputes and to institutionalize fairness; doctors, well obviously, doctors have always existed in one form or another, though only in recent history do we carve out with such diligence the many forms and ranks of physical care-giving.  He suggests, boldly and reasonably (in fact, it’s bold to be so plainly reasonable) that we might all benefit from a return to these foundational commitments.  Yes.  Of course.  The absence of them is what makes us all so outraged, astonished, and generally speechless: when a drug company hides evidence that its medication does harm; when a financial corporation allows the loss of lifetime-savings entrusted to its care; when food crops are sprayed with poisons so someone can make a bigger or faster profit.  These are betrayals of the basic human contract and certainly violations of the unwritten code of professions.  Who, we might ask, are those decision-makers taking care of?

I know there is room for disagreement.  There always is, and there always should be.  But can we begin with better questions?  Can we learn to question ourselves and our colleagues?  Can we keep a clearer sense of what’s at stake?  Because it’s pretty big and there’s kind of a lot of it: our whole selves, our communities, our nation, our earth.  The air we breathe and the water we drink.  And, Ezra would add, “oceans and jungles and fish and gorillas and babies.”  Right.

So: what are you taking care of?