Searching for Atman in Boston

We were starting Siddhartha, a book ostensibly remote from the concerns of 21st century adolescents. What should they care about the Brahmin’s son, a prince among Brahmins? Morning ablutions? The Rig-Vedas? Atman? Meditation under the banyan tree?

In truth, nothing could be more about them. The book asks: Which path will I take? How do I come by experience? What do I know if I only know what others teach me? When comes the time that I embark on my own quest, my own path, despite all warnings? How will I know the truth without making of my life a great experiment, and willingly opening myself to all that life can bring?

This was the iron rail I hoped to put us on on Monday morning, and I was all fired up.

But a windstorm, the trailing arm of an Atlantic hurricane, left Ripton, and much of Vermont, powerless on Sunday night. At seven-thirty Monday morning there were twelve trees down across the Lincoln Road on the way up to school. We were certain there could be no school. Pam was in Brandon, attending to her new-born granddaughter in the dark, and Tal and Rose were trying to get around the power pole lying in their driveway. Today there would be no iron rail leading to the ultimate reality.

We headed downtown to make calls to ensure that everyone knew school was off, then back up to school to gather some belongings. The road had been cleared moments before.  We turned in to the school driveway to see numerous cars and, upon entering the school, found all the kids seated around the table in the dark room, ready for school, waiting for us to arrive.

They had not gotten the message, and the storm had not frightened them. I stared into the gloom, thinking ruefully about the day that could have been, at home reading papers by candle-light, knowing now it was time to teach.

Something about them sitting there inspired me. They were like little birds, ready to learn as best they could. We made a few adjustments: there would be a candle on the table, but no one was allowed to play with the wax (experience having taught that there is nothing more magnificently enticing to young adolescents than playing with melted candle wax). No one was allowed in the basement, as this was the day before Hallowe’en. Boys could go into the woods to pee. The ninth graders were charged with getting buckets of water from the vernal pond to refill toilets. And the doors needed to stay shut at all times to preserve what heat we had.

And with that, school began. No internet, phones, lights, microwave, or running water, in violation of the entirety of Vermont state fire-code, I am sure. We had school just as school might have been in 1910.

Melville writes in Moby Dick: “Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!”

One of the most difficult arts of teaching is keeping the school and the kids aimed towards our fixed purpose—keeping momentum and a sense of excitement week after week. Keeping everyone unified and moving forward together, pursuing the whale, and the grail. When weather, sickness, or holidays intervene, all that we’ve built can seem to collapse. The wind goes out of the sails. On the years when Hallowe’en falls midweek, all seems obstacle, all seems a torrent of un-learning and distraction, all seems angles to the iron way. Skittles become infinitely more important than the Pythagorean theorem or the theme of the hero’s journey in Siddhartha. A good costume becomes the new quest, a sack of candy the grail chalice incarnate.

We desperately tried to keep the school on iron rails through the dark, through the rifled hearts of the mountains. We bundled up in our coats. Una and Isa came bounding into the science room at lunch with thyme and sage from the garden and asked if they could burn the leaves in the dark basement to “conjure spirits.” I said “No” to the basement but “Yes” to the conjuring of spirits. At lunch time, while Phoebe wandered about the soccer field cowled in Lena’s owl fleece blanket, Una and Isa kneeled in the center of the labyrinth drawing out spirits from the woods.  Henry Black repeatedly filled up water bottles and volunteered to send out homework messages to his peers from home each night, since I couldn’t. When the toilet got clogged, Oscar brandished the plunger and went to work without complaint.

On Tuesday they came to school dressed in costume: Una was Medusa, with golden snakes woven into her hair. Isa was a witch. Lena was a pumpkin. Henry W. was Robin Hood in camouflage tights. Sasha was Indiana Jones. Iris and Vivian were boys. Joe and Nate were girls. Jack was Hell’s best dad, carrying his Devil spawn, Colby, in a Baby Bjorn. Phoebe, Henry B. and Ethan were all Swiss-Austrian yodelers and goat-farmers. Henry S. was a borg, with gears and capacitors glued to his cheeks. Oscar’s hair was a squirrel’s nest, complete with four stuffed varmints and fresh straw.

Events seemed fated to swerve us from our path. At times it was difficult to take them seriously. Try teaching literature to a child who holds his Siddhartha book and looks across the table with fake blood running out of his eyes. Try pressing them close to hear Siddhartha’s searching voice when they have four golden snakes bouncing in their tangled hair. Jack stared at me with satanic eyes, like a raccoon from hell. Paul could not help getting into a fierce, all-consuming debate with Henry about the important distinction a between borg and cyborg. Pillowcases of candy sat on the big room table all day. And I was thinking about what was coming next week—our class trip on the following Monday.

Where are we going? I asked them, as we sat in the dark gloom, with our single candle guttering out on top of a pile of books.

To Boston, they said. 

But what are going to do there? See? Learn?

We’re going to a museum?

Yes. We’re going to see Gauguin’s great masterwork.  LEt’s take a look at this painting again.

I pulled out the big Gauguin in Tahiti catalogue again and opened the centerfold to  “Where do we come from? What are We? We are we going?” We’d started the year looking at that painting.  On the first day of school I had asked them in French: D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Nous allons-nous? I’d asked them because I wanted them to take the largest view possible, to consider that their lives, as wide open as the world, lay before them. We’d focused on the first question: Where do you come from? I wanted them to to embrace that question while the answers were still close.

Now we were going to see the Gauguin’s painting up close at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Now we were moving, going, doing, becoming. I told them a little about how Gauguin came to paint it, how he’d become disgusted with modern, industrialized life, and how he sought to recover a kind of lost human purity. I showed them the figures and how the painting reads from right to left, the human story compacted onto a stretch of rough burlap. I told them their responsibility in the museum was to stand in front of the painting and imagine themselves into it. To find a character in the painting whose thoughts and feelings they could imagine. To see if they could read a story there. I told them they had to come away from the painting knowing something deep about it and they would remember that far in the future.

“Where are we going?” I asked. “Write your answer. Answer any of the questions. In the beginning of the year, I asked you, Where are you from? You’ve been in school for nearly sixty days. Try answering the question again. But this time you can try answering the next question:  Where are we going?”

They set to writing as much as they could in a short amount of time. All year I have been pressuring them to write, to be ready to go into their thoughts without fear, procrastination, or rigidity. So when I said, “Go,” they did, and this time, like most times, they could not stop. And if they did, I only had to read a few sentences of someone’s attempt, and that started them again, because hearing a peer’s written words is implicit sanction to write one’s own. So they plunged into the abyss.

We are going to the end, Creed wrote. We are going to Ragnorak. We are going to not be found. We are going to mother nature’s wrath. We are going to join the Samanas. We are going to Boston. We are going to grow up. We are going to change. We are going to become ancestors. We are going to follow the cycle of life and death. We are going to change the world. We are going to not count. We are going to die young. We are going to be hot to trot. We are going to be siblings, and good ones at that. We are going to die peacefully. We are going to move. We are going to run. We are going to stand strong. We are going to be us. We are going to be history.

Phoebe kept writing hers until class ended. When it was time to go, she approached me in a state of excitement.

“Tal. I have over a hundred things on my list!” That night she emailed it to me.

We are going to Boston, to our graves, to heaven. We are going to grow up, become our own people, to carry on, to find the ultimate reality, burn an eternal flame. We are going to museums, to live on in hard times, to be remembered for who we are, to try things we thought we’d never try. We are going to face our fears, milk each opportunity, find a happy medium, make each other happy, have our hearts broken. We are going to learn love, become one body, use baby crayons and adult crayons, read banned books, hold the door open for others. We are going to make metaphors that make no sense, tuck animals into bed, hope someone finds us. We are going to ignore expiration dates, to amaze the public with our temporary sanity, throw pearls into the ocean, lose ourselves, run through thorns,  be afraid, and to hold old people’s hands.

In the museum. the docent at the MFA announced that the students had to stay with us, the chaperones, at all times. I asked her where the Gauguin painting was. She told us and then she said, “Enjoy your visit.”

As soon as she was gone, I addressed the kids, who were huddled in a corner on the marble floors. “Okay, we’re gonna let you loose. Stay with a peer, but you’re free to go anywhere. Ther are mummies and Egyptian artifacts. There are Roman statues, old furniture, Native American rooms, and an exhibit of Mark Rothko. Try to go into the Rothko. They say that people cry in front of his paintings more than any other in the world. And go to the Gauguin. Remember, it reads from right to left. It tells a story. Try to figure out the story and try to enter into a painting and leave this world for that one. You’re free to go anywhere. Be civilized, be interested. Meet back here in two hours.”

They nodded, raring to go, snatching maps of the museum out of my hand.

For the next two hours we saw them only periodically. They did not stay with us. They disappeared into the warren of rooms stretching back through time. Henry B. grabbed me to show me a sculpture of hundreds of colored threads suspended over our heads, casting mist-like shadows on the walls. “Where is the Gauguin room?” he asked. Rose and I gazed at the great white Zen paintings of Agnes Martin. In the Gauguin room Ben told me what he had discovered about Gauguin’s painting, that it began with an infant in the right corner and ended with an old woman in shadow in the left corner. At the center was a tall young man, reaching for an apple at the top edge of the painting, his muscular legs glowing with warm, goldern light.

“That’s like Siddhartha, reaching for knowledge,” Ben said. “And look over there, that’s Van Gogh.”  It was “Les Peiroulets Ravine,” a swirling, animated landscape with two tiny figures making their way along a path.

Iris and Geeta were looking at Renoir’s “Danse a Bougival.” Geeta told me she stood behind a tour group of elderly ladies and had gotten inside information on the identity of the girl in the painting.

“The girl was someone Renoir knew!” she exclaimed. “And the man with the straw hat is a country gentleman.”

Behind us, in a glass vitrine, was a bronze Degas dancer, her leg pointed delicately from her antique lace skirt. We sat on the cushioned bench in the middle of the gallery, looking into those magnificent windows.

Sam told me about being in the Rothko room. “Tal, Tal,” he said, “I saw a woman crying in front of one of the Rothko paintings, the big black ones.”

Not ten yards from those towering doorways into the abyss was a tiny Rembrandt painting on a panel of an artist, sitting in the shadows of a low-ceilinged room gazing at a canvas before him. Due to the perspective of the painting the back of the canvas is facing us—it is black and immense in comparison to the shadowed artist behind it. I read that this painting was a great influence on Rothko, as it presented the drama of the moment when the artist faces existential blankness, the nothing that proceeds creation. And this tiny painting had been a seed for Rothko’s magnificent hovering, incandescent planes.

Behind us Geeta and Maddy sat together in the dark room on bench, gazing at massive chrome sculpture, a silver boulder the size of an elephant. It could have been a meteor from another galaxy. Geeta said she sat there for twenty minutes, thinking about many things. Geeta was on her way to becoming her own Siddhartha, in the grove, deep in thought.

Paul walked through glass door not knowing where he was going and entered a room which was filled with Roman statues. He told is how he got swept away up by the large marble of Juno. ”I just walked into room, not knowing what I would see, and there was this huge thing, just there.”

At the end of our time feet were aching. But Henry Swan, Creed, and Jack were still alive and on fire. “Did you see the Picassos and the Jackson Pollock!?”  they shouted as they bounded towards us up a wide staircase. They were beside themselves with excitement. “You have to see them, you have to see them!”

“Okay,” we said. And we followed them, these eighth grade boys who’d managed to  memorize the layout of all three floors of the museum in two hours. It was hard to keep up with them, but they were, as Whitman might have described them, afoot with their vision. We bounded into the room where Pollocks and Picassos were juxtaposed side-by-side to highlight their amazing relations and affinities in color, palette, form, and composition. The boys urged us into the next room filled with paintings by Charles Sheeler, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, and John Singer Sargent.

“And look at this one,” Jack said. “I really love this.” It was a synthetic cubist painting by Stuart Davis, a favorite painter of mine, and Jack was hyper-charged. “It was in the middle of the room so I figured it must be important. I looked at it for over a half hour, practically forever. I was there so long I kind of lost everyone.”

He’d found a painting that spoke to him. A vision of the New York streets, the jazz of Harlem, echoes of afro-tribal rhythms rendered in cubist vocabulary. He didn’t have to know any of this to be taken by the painting.

When we left the museum they were giddy. The sky was dark and a windy mist blew at us we made our way back to Chinatown. The kids walked together in a long, constantly reforming string, little pods of them touching shoulders, their heads inclined or shouting ahead. They moved like a giant amoeba, all adolescent protoplasm, life energy, laughter, whispering, calling out. Our boundaries shifted and changed but did not disintegrate. We walked and we held together.

That night we screened a movie. I had meant to bring “The Incredibles,” but I forgot it. A man at the front desk of the hostel handed me “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

“Will that be okay?” he asked.

“Okay? It’s the most perfect.”

The conceit of the movie is, of course, that there is life in the world beyond the confining walls of schools and society’s expectations, and sometimes you have slip through the cracks to go after it. The movie contrasts the strictures of rote learning, droning teachers, and the limits of institutional learning against Ferris’ zestful determination to break out and courageously create his own magical experience. He is Siddhartha, circa 1982, in suburban Chicago, setting out on a quest.  There is a scene in the movie where Ferris, Sloane and Cameron enter the Art Institute of Chicago. A long shot shows a line of small school children, perhaps in first grade, entering the museum, all linked, holding hands in an extended string, a strand of prelapsarian DNA slithering through the gallery. In the middle of the string of children Sloane, Ferris, and Cameron are enjoined, now first-graders in their big-kid bodies, passing by a background of the great works of civilization.

The film follows with shot after shot of the masterworks in the AIC. A Picasso nude. Stained-glass by Chagall in radiant azure. Cassatt’s “The Child’s Bath.” Rodin’s standing “Balzac,” and a curvaceous reclining  figure by Henry Moore.  Then we see Cameron from behind, looking at Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” His eyes zero in on the small girl in a white dress with her mother at the center of the painting. The camera zooms in, shot by shot, until the images dissolves into a pointillist abstraction. We see Cameron losing himself in the painting in order to find himself. Here art does the magic which makes us see.  Structure disintegrates, order dissolves. Cameron enters into the painting, it takes a hold of him, and he lets it take hold, and he is changed. He is a child again, innocent and uncorrupted, if only for a day, before time sweeps him into the rat race and adulthood, before he crosses the threshold forever.

In these days it is often hard for me to forget what is happening out in the Big Beyond far from our little school on the mountain. I read about the mass famine descending on Yemen because rebels are starving the nation into submission. In a crossroads church in Texans a man has, only days before, shot 25 worshippers with a AR-15, and I discover, from a three minute search on the internet, that I can get my own AR-15 for $800 and no back-ground check, if I meet a guy in the TJ Maxx parking lot in Essex Junction. And if I pony up another $200 I can put a bump-stock on it and make it fully automatic. World leaders, with not a wit of understanding about the lives we all struggle through, are playing at war, like a lot of insecure, lost bullies in the halls of a middle school, threatening the planet’s existence. Damascus, where Rumi spoke his ecstatic reveries, is in ruin, and blood actually runs in the streets. Glaciers the size of Delaware are calving into the oceans, and the warm mist that’s been blowing in our faces all day in the streets of Boston is most surely a localized micro-climate which is the result of warmer and expanding seas. We know from our studies that warmer water expands. We know that the average global temperature is on a trajectory to rise well above 2 degrees celsius in the next 70 years.  The facts are inescapable and haunting. And our students are learning them. And those facts sink in, and then our students forget them, because after all, our students are still children, who are holding hands in a museum, talking about art and life.

After the trip I wrote to the parents to tell them that the trip had been successful. I told them that we had walked through the dirty puddles of Boston, that we had eaten Chinese hot pot, that we had experienced the electricity exhibit in the science museum, and that we had sat in a museum of art and seen the beautiful things humankind has made. The things worth preserving, the human essence which sometimes, these days, seems heartbreakingly close to dissolution.

I look into the window on the world and sometimes I see very little love and tenderness. No one, it seems, cares for what is most important. And then I look at the students in our school. They have days where they speak to each and every one of their classmates, and when they do that they are making strands of love, a net that holds them. I must remember two students sitting shoulder to shoulder on a bench gazing at a chrome mass that speaks to them. They listen for what it might tell. It’s a cipher, a secret message about the ultimate reality, an analogue for the soul, a doorway into the eternal. The good world seems sometimes to be such a lonely heart, beating still, yes, but in need of being held lest it be forgotten forever. So we lift the veil, there it is, and it is within our reach.

We want for our students and our children to know the beauty of the world, to believe in it. Otherwise, what is there to live and fight for?  We want for them to feel love growing among them. We want them to be charged by invisible electrical pulses emanating from a tableau of figures in a painting by Gauguin, in Monet’s shimmering haystacks. We want them to find a place under the banyan tree where they begin to comprehend Atman. We want for them to say, as Henry Wagner did when he wrote about Friday, that he was so happy and grateful. “So that’s the end of today,” he wrote to his classmates.  “Thanks, you guys, for making the day fantastic, and I love you all.”  And I am grateful for Henry. He is speaking about the wellspring grail, the iron rail, the cup that’s right before him. It is not gold-plated, armored up, marketed, or for sale. It is soft and undying and free. It fits in his hand, this devoted love for his companions, this blossoming awareness of his existence. It’s the ultimate reality, and it fits him just right. 

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