The Woodpile

Weekly Notes from Tal/ #3

I have in my head a quote from the poet Octavio Paz: “To live is to be separated from what we were in order to approach what we are going to be in the mysterious future.” I am sure that he was not talking about young adolescents, but his words apply. We have set up our school in order for them to have a place where they are safe to be “separated from what they were” in order to do the kind of work that will lead them excitedly into the mysterious future. To be in the liminal state; to be on the outer edge; to be thinking about what is behind and what is to come, to be able to be awake in those moments–this is when one feels most alive. That’s what we want: a feeling that the whole world is luminously alive with possibility and meaning. We seek to have them in this between-worlds space constantly, toggling between childhood glee and frivolity and the looming responsibility of adulthood. To be safe, and a little trepidatious, and a little excited, anticipating the next bend in the road.

Again and again the kids talk in the speeches they’ve been reading to each other about seeking and needing “safety.” What does this word mean to them? Sometimes it means a school that is their own, a sanctuary made for them and by them, where individuality has a place and time to be recognized and thrive. (A side note here: the use of social media is a way that they and many people feel they can project who they are, be seen and known and recognized. Adults as well as kids have this need–“here I am–this is me? I am happy and proud. I want you to see it too!).

Every day they seem to see some new sliver of other lives, and slowly the picture becomes clearer and more nuanced. They begin to see facets of each other, and they begin to see facets of themselves. They are diamonds in the making, under a certain amount of internal and external pressure. They look at the monolith of ‘life” and the begin to see forms, curves, patterns, the sharpness of edges, synaptic links between this and that. Frost once wrote in a letter that “we still ask (students)…to think, as in the nineties, but we seldom tell them what thinking means; we seldom tell them that it is just putting this and that together; it is just saying one thing in terms of another. To tell them is to set their feet on the first rung of a ladder, the top of which sticks through the sky.”

This really is what we are trying to do. The power of abstract thought is the power to see the world in diverse terms and myriad forms. To see how this is like that. To render story into meaning, or experience into wisdom, memory into talisman. When the kids see each other do this, this makes them feel safe–not safe from the world, but safe to think about the world. They are in a sanctuary where the thing to do is to link one’s self to the many other evolving, unfinished humans. We try to see one thing in terms of another. One man sees a pile of wood in a frozen swamp and recognizes it as symbol of his work and the processes of life. We see the poem, changed now from a woodpile to a “word-pile,” and now we must convert that word-pile to heat that we can use. How does this poem, born in a frozen swamp, tell us who we are and what we might become?

Or, to put it another way: what happens if we don’t keep walking further, if we don’t ask? In “The Wood-Pile” Frost considers “turning back.” Afterall, there’s a warm home somewhere, a fireplace or woodstove. But in order to know home, to find his own “home” in a cold, unspeaking, unresponding universe, he has to go further, out of the quotidian here and now into the landscape of spirit, the miraculous processes of time, growth, decomposition, and the “ladders” he can make by climbing down into the earth and up to the sky. There is risk in it. He can fall through, sink down, get lost. He is alone. There’s be no one, no god or echo to answer him. Nothing but a single bird, or himself, in whom to find solace or companionship. And yet he goes on, and he finds a gift, something to answer the awesome force of existential loneliness.

What the kids feel here, on our best days, in the best moments, is that they are climbing ladders together. They are not alone. They are seeing through each other’s eyes, which of course magnifies exponentially the number of things to be seen. They are climbing on a scaffolding, and they are building it up and out as they go. The Burning School structure is an analogue to this. It’s made of cheap strapping from Goodro Lumber, a temporary wooden structure made to be burned at our alumni barbeque. It’s designed by them, spindly, “janky,” homemade, built to adolescent specifications, and an object of their love and devotion. It is airy, un-filled in, exposed, and real. They build and work with happy anticipation. It grows at the rate they do–a piece nailed on here today, and moment of revelation or inspiration there tomorrow, a broken joint here or bent nail there, and dash of epiphany when the last strip of wood is screwed in and the tower stabilizes. And then the glorious blaze, the flames reaching up into the dark! It is their potential, an adventure and a ritual, and they are in and out of it and and looking on. They do climb ladders, and they love to go to such heights. They rise as the structure rises. They rise together, smoke and sparks in the autumn night.

Martha Graham, the dancer and choreographer, talked about the notion (in her words) of how no artist is ever pleased. “No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

It is this state of “queer divine dissatisfaction,” this “blessed unrest” that we seek to find and in which to reside. I want them to be slightly dissatisfied, and clawing at things. I want them to be somewhat unrestful, to move into such a state regularly, but not compulsively, to have a little wild reckless desire and insatiable hunger. Then they will be alive, and more alive, and feel the life coursing inside them. In the case of our Burning School structure, they make it and then let it go. That leaves room to keep growing, gives them emptiness so they can feel a new blessed unrest and then ask, what can we make next?

But sometimes they go “on hold” for a bit; they become stagnant, seemingly unchangeable. Months will go by. Others around them are moving and stretching. They are watching and listening, and this is why it is so critical to keep their deep psychological processes, discoveries, and struggles, cognitive and emotional, out in the public sphere and not quarantined to the resource room–that is, in order to learn and see themselves, they must see the other. When they see each other clearly, they are not afraid, but drawn lovingly toward the other. This process is the only thing that can bring down walls and bring universal peace. I am not talking about tolerance, which is too small a term. I am talking about straight up, unbridled celebration of the other, which does happen, and happens constantly, so long is we are all together in a state of constant revelation and self-revealing. “This is the discovery I made in myself, last night, on a walk with my mother. This is the moment when I saw more of you, when I listened and heard your cry of anguish.”

Mary Oliver says, “Tell me your despair, and I will tell you mine.” This is the antidote to war, misunderstanding, cruelty, and hatred. When children, or adults, or politicians, or religious adversaries, can move beyond fear and into the other and say, “I have suffered. I have doubts. I am woundable. This is how I came to be,” them we may have a place of open hearts, and the circumstance and environment for other hearts to open.

Frost’s poem “Revelation” is all about this notion (to me at least)

We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.

’Tis pity if the case require                                        5
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,                                  10
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.

A great deal of time at NBS goes into breaking the word “apart” into the words “a part” (of). In the beginning the kids do feel apart, from themselves and others. While listening to each others speeches, they begin to see how they are a part of the school, and how others are a part of the school, and of the world beyond. They have to reveal themselves, they have to let themselves be “found out.” Until then they are mere agitated hearts, hiding in the shadows. In order to find the god-self, or the god-head, it is imperative that they tell us who they are. We all want to be seen and felt to be significant. We do not want to be specks of dust. We’d like god to make an appearance, but sometimes we just have to settle for what of god we can pull out of ourselves and our own wanderings and explorations in the darker regions.

This is how I understand Frost’s line in the beginning of “The Woodpile.” When I teach, I sometimes feel like I want us to be safe, and not do or talk about anything dangerous, to avoid the darker regions. But then I remember Frost’s counsel, which is essentially this: go further, beyond the village and the runner tracks, and we shall see more. We shall see, with divine clarity. We will find some kind of fire, a gift we could not imagine. I am thinking again about the time last week when I asked Sasha to say more about Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” At first Sasha said something pretty predictable. “The poem is his thank you to his parents.” That could have been enough. But I thought, why should we stop here, and turn back? Let’s go into the “swamp” and see what we can find. We will see more.” When I asked him to relate the poem to himself, he began to cry, talking about his parents and his sister and his adoption. So we went into the unknown, and we found something more important. His first comment had been cold and proper and not very interesting, but his tears were warm and real. When he related the poem to himself, it made the poem have meaning. It made him have meaning to us. We saw what mattered to Sasha. That’s what happens when you go further and don’t turn back.

Frost teaches me that there is always more to see. I feel the cold and the warmth. The warmth is not there without the cold. He tells me that we all have important work to do. He tells me that all of us are in danger of being “cold” but if we work at it, we can keep from being cold. He tells me that there are people who came before me who did big, difficult things in the world. There are living spirits all around. I can see a man’s life inside of his ax. My “task” is to find my own “ax.” Frost’s ax is his pen and paper. He converts paper (wood) into poems. Poems and words have a kind of necessary heat and can warm us. Then there’s the quote from Franz Kafka: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” He means that someone who works with words can have the power to make us see and feel—words can cut into us and unfreeze our blood, and make us be alive while we live.

When we read the poem, Una said that she saw the woodpile as a sort of rib-cage. The vines of clematis were wrapped all around, and in that graying pile of wood was a man’s heart, a woodsman who’d “spent” his life and left his handiwork. And the pile of wood was to Una a heart, still beating, slowly, with the “slow smokeless burning of decay.” In this moment it was quite clear that Una had made it to the place Frost meant when he spoke of what it means to think. She was putting her foot on the rungs of the ladder, seeing one thing in terms of another, and she was already climbing towards heaven.

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