Weekly Notes # 2
The American poet John Ashbery died two weeks ago. His poetry was famously bewildering, primarily because it showed how the mind moves, jumping from one idea to another, from memories to strange associations to colloquialism to epiphany. Embedded in these ornately structured streams of thought are occasional jewels of clarity, resting and waiting there to be found by whomever is willing to do the work of opening the door and walking in. One of his poems, “The One Thing That Can Save America” contains this passage.
Where then are the private turns of event
Destined to bloom later like golden chimes
Released over a city from a highest tower?
The quirky things that happen to me, and I tell you,
And you know instantly what I mean?
What remote orchard reached by winding roads
Hides them? Where are these roots?
It is the lumps and trials
That tell us whether we shall be known
And whether our fate can be exemplary, like a star.
I put the passage on the board this week, trying to remind myself to think about it, and to make myself believe that the passage speaks to all of us. I like to think that the students or anyone is, on some level, always asking these questions. Can our inner lives be made into blossoming bell sounds? Don’t we all yearn to be understood, to have our singular being, comprised of such tiny, disparate, granular moments, suddenly cohere and ring inside of the minds others?
Every day at NBS we see this happening. Someone tells us about a quirky thing, and we all know instantly what that means. Over time, these little sounds and stories accrue. Some of the stories are funny, others sad, others strange and mystical, some “harsh and exciting,” as Mary Oliver writes. The most useful of them are filled with lumps and trials. Eventually they combine, and the sound of them becomes a kind of music that will grow more complex and subtle over time.
This week I read to the class from Huston Smith’s book The World’s Religions a parable of the Buddha.
Buddhism begins with a man. In his later years, when India was afire with his message and kings themselves were bowing before him, people came to him even as they were to come to Jesus asking what he was.1 How many people have provoked this question—not “Who are you?” with respect to name, origin, or ancestry, but “What are you? What order of being do you belong to? What species do you represent?” Not Caesar, certainly. Not Napoleon, or even Socrates. Only two: Jesus and Buddha. When the people carried their puzzlement to the Buddha himself, the answer he gave provided an identity for his entire message. “Are you a god?” they asked. “No.” “An angel?” “No.” “A saint?” “No.” “Then what are you?” Buddha answered, “I am awake.”
I then asked the class to think about the ways in which “being awake” related to their speeches. I wanted them see that the work they are doing is no more or less than the work the Buddha did. I wanted them to see that they are part of a great tradition of self-seeking. Our students are not exactly Gods, angels, or saints (yet) but they can certainly be awake.
I suppose all of life is or can be a series of moments where one becomes increasingly awake and aware. Whether secular or non-secular, each of us has the capacity to see better, feel more, understand phenomena. Adolescents are vexing to an unparalleled degree, but they also contain a hunger for spiritual searching and capacity for oracular power. I like to think that if we can make it dramatic enough, they will come to these days at the school with the feeling that today is the day on which I will awake, and today is the day I will know all there is to know. Henry Wagner told us on Friday morning that as he drove up the road to school with his mother, from the outskirts of Middlebury and up the winding road on a mountain alongside a stream, he tried to notice it for the first time. He tried to see it as though he was heading toward a hidden orchard and he needed to be awake to see it all.
Their descriptions of these moments are not always articulate or clear. Helping them see these moments, and tell them clearly and truly is my work. Their speeches, which we began reading this week, are a test-field where we try it out. The speeches filled with moments in which they found themselves awake or awakening. Or, in some cases, moments in which they were asleep, and from which they are now must awake.
Sometimes, in the morning, they are not quite awake. I mean this both actually and metaphorically. Ethan read “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. He read it because his brother had read it last year, and it is a poem he liked and, it seemed, he wanted to keep it alive in the school. When he read it, some of the kids made eye contact with him. But the day was starting, the day was beginning to rev up. Some were looking at their shoes. They might not have been aware if the Buddha walked into the room. Were all the kids awake enough to discern that the poem was telling them about how they too are moving across a landscape, on a high, necessary journey? Were they awake enough to know that Mary Oliver was speaking to them, through Ethan? Were they aware of the immense possibility, the potency of the invitation?
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Sometimes, as they hear these stories and speeches and poems, they will be mesmerized. They will see life new again. They will see a person they did not know for the first time. They will see their friend, whom they have known since pre-school, as though bathed in supernatural light. Other times they will see or hear something beautiful or true, and they will shy away. I will try to push them closer again. “This speech that you just heard, how is it about you? What did the speech tell you, do to you?” Sometimes the kids just want to be friendly, safe, and supportive. “It was a great speech. Thank you?” But sometimes that is not enough. Lurking behind that “easy figure” (as Richard Wilbur phrases it in “The Writer”) is something more powerful, needed, vital.
When we read “Those Winter Sundays,” the kids came to see it well enough to know the poem was a kind of thank-you that had never been said but now was understood deeply. “The poem is his thank you to his father for keeping the house warm,” said one student. The statement is correct as far as it goes. But it did not warm the room with humanity or individuality or passion. “So how do you feel that?” I asked him. “What do you know about love’s austere and lonely offices?”
At this moment the student began to cry. “I know my own parents love me, and they have done everything for me. And sometimes it hurts to see that my sister does not feel that. And I know they have given me life and this school. And they take me places. And I tried to do everything I could, as good as I could, to appreciate that.”
His first statement, the coldly analytical one, revealed nothing about him. It pushed the poem and his knowledge and experience, wherever it was, away. His second statement, about his feelings of his parents’ love and devotion to him, made his classmates turn and see him. If they were really awake, and I think they were, they would see that his tears and understanding are the same tears and understanding that lead Robert Hayden to write the poem.
It is important to me that they see what words and stories can do. It is equally important to me that they learn that they have the same source material as the Buddha, Richard Wilbur, Robert Hayden, and Mary Oliver. If they can remember that they have been so blessed to hear the geese honking, or listen to the struggle of someone writing a poem in a closed room, or sit at evening by a warm fire, reading a book, with a dog or cat curled up nearby, then they have material to understand the poem, to feel it. If they are awake, they will see too that our table at school is like that fire, and it is a sacred and warming place that can only be understood in time. Or be understood more deeply through time.
When my student sees that his life bears similarities to the story in Robert Hayden’s poem; when the kids see that every day there is more to see, that a car ride up the hill can be an inexhaustible source, they begin to see their lives with a little more reverence. All of the speeches so far have looked in one way or another at the idea of looking hard at life and sorting out what it is. One speech in particular took up the meaning of the word “Cherish.” It comes from Latin (carus) to mean “care” and from Old French (cheris and cher) which means “dear.” We are seeing, I hope, that each of us is dear. The person across the table, the person I sat behind on the bus, my brother, my father, my grandmother. All of this is dear. And so is this poem, and this speech, and this day, and this grass, where I lay in the sun with my classmates one warm afternoon in September, when my teacher sent us out in silence to meditate on holiness. All of that, we are seeing, is something to cherish.
Jack read Frost’s “Mowing” this week. For an exercise I went back to the poem afterward and I marked it up and made observations about it the manner that I wish the kids to mark up the poems I am giving them. As I read the poem, I saw new things in it. Repetitions of words, strange phrasing, and then, as always, Frost’s continual wish that the world say back to him some kind of perfect answer, his wish that the material object give him the spiritual truth. He waits for the scythe to whisper to him, to tell him what it is. But really, the scythe just makes a sound as the grass goes down. The scythe does not whisper nor tell a thing. We whisper, we tell a thing. The real work is that meaning must be made by us, by the mowers, by our thinking of it. We are looking at the facts of our lives with earnest love, and that is a kind of truth that can not be exceeded.