This

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This morning I walked out of an office and thought about the year it has been. When I was a younger writer I fell into the trap of thinking a great piece would be if thirty-year-old me would run into ten-year-old me and they had a conversation. It is a cheap idea done ad nauseam, but back then I was cheap and nauseous.

Now I’m expensive and nauseous. So it again crossed my mind, this theme of antiquity.  But no, I decided against once again falling into the trap of writing or talking to myself from a different time in my life. I stood on a corner drinking a bottle of water feeling pretty good and relieved and new, and I thought, again, what a year it has been. Just about every aspect of life from a year ago has changed, and here I am at what one group of people might call the exit of a long career, but which I have determined is the starting point of something new, be it life itself. Reboot, if you will. 

But there’s no way to write about that without tapping deep into the marrow of triteness and predictability. So I went back into my books to find someone who did a much better job of it. It comes from a paper called, “On Public Knowledge and Personal Revelation,” by Joseph Zinker. It is one of those rare pieces of writing I can read and then shout, “Man, I wish I had written that. But I thank God I read it.”

It meant a lot when I first came across it in a Leo Buscaglia book, Love, forty years ago this fall, and it means as much to me today. I pass it along with gratitude for sharing these small observations and digressions with me from this View:

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“If a man in the street were to pursue his self, what kind of guiding thoughts would he come up with about changing his existence?   He would perhaps discover that his brain is not yet dead, that his body is not dried up, and that no matter where he is right now, he is still the creator of his destiny. 

He can change this destiny by taking his one decision to change seriously, by fighting his petty resistance against change and fear, by learning more about his mind, by trying out behavior which fills his real need, by carrying out concrete acts rather than conceptualizing about them, by practicing to see and hear and touch and feel as he has never before used these senses, by creating something with his own hands without demanding perfection, by thinking out ways in which he behaves in a self-defeating manner, by listening to the words that he utters to his wife, his kids, and his friends, by listening to himself, by listening to the words and looking into the eyes of those who speak to him, by learning to respect the process of his own creative encounters and by having faith that they will get him somewhere soon. 

We must remind ourselves, however, that no change takes place without working hard and without getting your hands dirty.  There are no formulae and no books to memorize on becoming.  I only know this:  I exist.  I am.  I am here.  I am becoming.  I make my life and no one else makes it for me.  I must face my own shortcomings, mistakes, and transgressions.  No one can suffer my non-being as I do, but tomorrow is another day, and I must decide to leave my bed and live again.  And if I fail, I don’t have the comfort of blaming you or life or God.”

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Keep the Fire Burning

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This morning I walked along the beach just before dawn. The water was glassy; if I had a kayak with me, I could have gone a fair distance without a wave so much as lifting or pulling away. Gulls on the beach scattered in front and gathered behind and a solitary dolphin breached just about fifty feet off shore. We were alone together, the porpoise and me. Except for the occasional fighter yet ripping past it was perfectly peaceful, as was I.

I walked to Big Sam’s, a local side-street joint that’s been there forever, right on the inlet where fishing and tour boats already departed and will return in a few hours, and I sat absolutely alone looking out across the docks and had breakfast. It is such a safe routine, predictable in it’s pacing. I walk the beach a lot but don’t often add breakfast, so this last minute turn was a great start to the day. It only works for me though if I’m up before the sun. Sleeping late (after 6:30 or so) is a waste of the morning. By the time most people I know were getting up I was halfway through my egg and crab burrito.

Yesterday my son turned twenty-six and this morning I thought about when I was that age. Back then I woke to the sound of cows outside the old country house I lived in, and went for walks or hiked through a nearby state park. Back then I was happy—completely in the moment, feeling more myself than perhaps I had until then, maybe since, who knows, but I had also “paused” for a while. After living around the country, working jobs as diverse as managing a health club to smuggling blankets out of Mexico, I found my forward motion wasn’t, so I stopped and worked a few dead end jobs in hotel restaurants and city bars. I didn’t know then that “taking a break” and “forward motion” are not separate; they are, in fact, very much dependent upon each other. But for me, then, I stalled. The only two things I knew then were I was completely happy because of circumstance, and that I knew I didn’t want to throw out my anchor just yet.

It took the tough love of someone else back then to light a fire under my ass. And during this past eight months I once again “paused,” stepped to the side and let it all be after thirty years of trying to stay one step ahead of the flames. This time, however, that old me came back around and found some purpose in that pause, and I feel myself again. Now I see my son who I’m so proud of, picking up momentum, building a reputation as an artist, and reminding me daily of my dad for his instinctive kindness.

And this morning I walked the beach, stopped for breakfast, watched the gulls scatter and return, and then that dolphin moved past. Maybe it’s because I’ve been walking beaches since I’m a child that I found the metaphor so moving. Or it could be because with each dramatic change in my life I reach up a bit more and try to see what’s next, but I’ve only started to discover that the times I’ve breached the surface, just briefly, have been driven by love. I suspected decades ago my path was not going to be without left turns and even the occasional detour and u-turn, but that’s okay.

It turns out some of the dreams I had at twenty-six simply needed time, maturity, and experience to come to fruition. A little fire behind me didn’t hurt either. But it also turns out I’m the same person I was when I was my son’s age. Maybe moreso.

I wondered this morning half way through my burrito what these two times in my life have in common. Nature, of course, thinking about what’s next, starting a new path in my life. There are even a few cows still near my house. But there’s something else I can’t put my finger on, though I suppose it has something to do with being in the moment, appreciating the present, understanding that “thin, thin, the moment is thin, ever so narrow the now,” as James Taylor sings.

Or maybe I can feel the fire burning, keeping me from sitting still for too long.

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Being Alone, Sometimes

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Over the course of three decades working at a community college I had some interesting and, well, scary moments. There was the time a student threw a desk at me (I caught it, but he didn’t know it really shook me up); or the one who ran around the room screaming in Russian (I screamed back at him in Russian, and he froze, then ran out of the room, out of the building, and was never seen on campus again), or the one who wasn’t even a student of mine but I happened to venture into the dean’s office just as the provost was confronting him, but the student was so high he thought I was his professor and slammed the door shut and yelled at the two of us until security showed up. Yes, moments to remember, indeed.  

But there was one night that left me stone-cold scared.  

I got up to pee about ten pm. I’d been in my cinder block, windowless office for several hours, and everyone had gone home, the last class most likely filing out no later than nine. I stayed though; I wanted to clear my head after the incident in my college comp course at four thirty.  

A student in the back mouthed off at me then stood to leave. He cursed at me on the way out, muttering, “I’m coming back, asshole. You’re so fucked,” and he kicked open the door to the outside. Gone.

I normally didn’t worry about punks like this. They had my attention; it was the quiet creeps in the corner buried under a black raincoat who gave me pause. But this time he got under my skin, this student, the way he didn’t yell, just mouthed it to himself more than me. The way he didn’t make eye contact as if he wasn’t threatening me but instead already making plans, running through some list in his head of what he needed. When class ended everyone left, acting extra nice as they did, seemingly trying to compensate for their psychotic colleague who scared us all. “Have a good weekend, Professor,” most of them said, even the ones who never talked before. “See you Tuesday,” they all said. It was very nice. Calm. Borderline creepy.  

So I went back to my office and fiddled around and calmed down by listening to music and making a note which mentioned the guy’s name and said, “Threatened to kill me in my 4:30 course—22 witnesses.”  I figured the police would need a lead. When I emerged from my cinder block cell at about ten, I found the hallways to be vacant and even the classrooms and other offices to be empty. I saw the guard walking away from the building on his rounds, and I stretched, thought about heading right to my car and going home, but decided to head to the bathroom first. I had to pee.

I stood facing the wall, the overwhelming smell of cleansers filled the air reminding me that the cleaning crew had done their thing and left for the night. After drinking several bottles of water I figured this might take a bit, and I stood facing the tiles when the door slowly opened. I tried to turn my head but the position of the urinal kept me from seeing the door, which was anyway behind another wall, and I couldn’t see who came in. I was quiet a moment, trying to empty myself a bit faster, and then called out, “Tom, you back?” Nothing. Not even the sound of shoes, no reply, no clap of books or a backpack being tossed on the shelf near the door. Just the door closing on its own and a soft cough. I wasn’t alone.

***

Curiously, I spend a lot of time alone—walking, driving—and I like it. I can clear my head and do a lot of “writing” while by myself. I am rarely intimidated or scared when in the car or on a trail, not the least of all because I tend to pay attention wherever I am. Plus, most people, and animals for that matter, leave me alone. The irony of today’s way of life with technology and social media is well known: we are more connected than ever but increasingly isolated. I get that. When I spent time alone prior to cell phones and computers, I was simply out of reach. My imagination could run wild with who might have tried to call me but, alas, I wasn’t home, and they didn’t leave a message (or message machines were not yet available). But today we can be faced with multiple ways for people to get in touch with us, and when they don’t, when we lose friends, when we don’t hear from family anymore, it is obvious, it is blatant, and it is sad. Then, we spend even more time alone, as depression is such a spiraling disease.

But my solo walks and humanless wanderings are by choice. I can almost always dial up a down mood to something almost manic at the end of a long walk. Part of it is chemistry, part is meditation, and part of it is feeling more comfortable away from people than around them. Since I was nineteen-years-old I’ve been to some degree in front of groups of people, from coffeehouses, to exercise classes, to readings, to college teaching. But very rarely in those instances is one-on-one required. As such, I never had much practice at it. I’m crappy at small talk, and with the exception of a few people, I choose nature (or a full room, of course—one or the other).  

I read somewhere one of the signs of depression is the desire to be alone; and I believe this is true, for me at least. When I’m around too many people for too long (which isn’t long at all) I get depressed—but when I retreat to the river or hike somewhere, I can turn my mood around, feel possible, feel somewhat myself again. Technically, I’m not “clinically” depressed, and I’m generally always in a pretty decent mood. But when I’m around too many people, I want to flee. 

I never tire of walking, sitting along some waterway, sitting with an understanding friend talking, having a glass of wine, driving, stepping out of a busy building and finding a bench or a picnic table. A corner in a coffee shop. A trail through pines, or oaks. A train through forests of birch trees. A path through the Pyrenees. One or two people who understand and a moment or two in nature, and suddenly despair can quite easily slide to hope.

And hope is always worth getting to know, even searching for.

I finished peeing, zipped up, and turned around slowly, and the punk was standing against the far wall. My heart raced to an immeasurable pace and I tried to move to the sink to wash my hands without any visible shaking. I was going to bypass the washing but wanted to appear in control.

I soaped up wondering if a handful of this would sting his eyes enough for me to make a getaway. “What?!” I said, as if I knew he was there the whole time and I was tired and wanted to go home. I did want to go home but I was certainly no longer tired; at the moment I felt I could stay awake for a very long time.

“I just wanted to apologize. Please don’t drop me from your class. My mom will kill me.”

The blood ran out of my head and torso and gathered at my ankles. If I had to run at that moment I would not have been able to. I took a paper towel and dried my hands. “Are you apologizing because your mom will kill you or because you shouldn’t have mouthed off at me for giving you a failing grade on a paper that didn’t meet a single requirement?”

“Both, I guess.”

“You ever mouth off at your friends like that?”

He laughed a bit. “Yeah, I suppose, but listen, I really…”

“How come you can find all the words you need when mouthing off but none when writing?”

He stared at me. I was waiting for the Universal Collegiate “I don’t know,” but he was quiet and stared at me.

I walked out the door and he followed. “I’m going home,” I said. “See you Tuesday.”

“Okay,” he said, and walked out as I went to my office to get my stuff and perhaps throw up in my garbage can.

When I walked out to the car he was sitting on the bench. “Do you need a ride?” I asked, and he shook his head.

“No. I just don’t want to head home yet.” I didn’t ask why. I kind of figured why.

“See you Tuesday,” I said again, and he said the same.

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Breached

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I’m at a café on the oceanfront this morning. It is in the teens outside with a wind chill of not yet in the teens. From this table with tea and hot scrambled eggs, I can see as far as one can see; the air is clear, and except for a few surface clouds on the horizon just before dawn, the sky is completely blue.

There’s a clear riptide, otherwise the water is relatively calm for such a blustery day with changing weather patterns. Gulls all gathered right along the break line, and I swear it looks like they’re daring each other to go in the water and get some breakfast. One osprey did dive, came up with a small fish in its claws and carried it to the rooftop above me.

The server brought more hot water and juice. How easy it is to enjoy this vista from inside a glass wall sitting above a heating vent drinking peppermint tea.

But earlier, I went out for a walk on the boardwalk. A few joggers—clearly members of one of the SEAL teams judging by their physique and t-shirts and indifference to the weather—passed with a kind “good morning sir.” I’m at the age everyone calls me “sir.” I walked about four miles and couldn’t keep my eyes off the deep blue Atlantic, inviting and powerful. It looks the same from in here as it does when it is hot outside, except for the foam gathering along the beach where sea-spray is freezing as fast as it forms.

On a January day not unlike this one, though probably a bit warmer, I was out on the water just off the north end of the beach between the Cape Henry and the Cape Charles lighthouses in the mouth of the Chesapeake with my Dad.

We went whale watching. Early one day decades ago Dad and I decided to get up early and drive to an inlet at the beach and board a boat with about twenty other freezing people. We stood on the bow for forty minutes without ever so much as seeing a single whale. We decided it was just a beautiful day to be out there, to see the coast from a distance and enjoy the ride. We even laughed about the time I was supposed to go whale watching but didn’t. I lived in Massachusetts, and the family threw Dad a surprise party for his sixtieth birthday in Virginia Beach.

On the phone one day I told him I was heading up to Maine to go whale watching that weekend, and he was so happy for me. “Oh boy, that should be something,” I can hear him saying with earnest excitement. The truth was I was flying south to surprise him along with my siblings and a plethora extended family and friends. When he walked in the door he was indeed surprised and touched and laughed in great joy with each person he saw. He said to me, “I thought you were whale watching!” and I swear he sounded a bit disappointed. When I assured him I would still be going when I got home, he seemed relieved. I didn’t understand this too much until I was a father, my own son telling me about things he planned to do.

When Dad and I went whale watching together here, my son had not yet been born, and we rode on the bow, holding the rail and watching gulls gather in the wake. We had this in common, the love of nature, the beauty of the world around us. It was something we talked about, whether it be bird-watching in his backyard or the looking at the ocean while sitting in a restaurant. Even when I lived in the west and again in New England, I’d call him and tell him of my desert hikes or mountain climbs and he loved hearing about them.

On the boat that day, a lady next to us saw it first; a young humpback whale breached the surface just off the starboard side. This majestic wonder didn’t completely come out of the water, but for five minutes surfaced enough to put on a performance I’ll never forget. I didn’t have to convince Dad how much I enjoyed this trip.

It’s quiet today; I’m the only customer right now. Out on the horizon a few container ships are heading to or from the port, and a few fishing vessels are heading back to the docks. The sun is ineffective this morning as it isn’t helping warm the air at all.

I wonder what whales are out there now, just below the surface, feeding in the mouth of the bay. Humpback whales live to be fifty or sixty years old. Is it possible the one Dad and I saw is still out there, entertaining another father and son trying to get closer to nature, closer to each other?

It is beautiful to think so.

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Disappearing Act

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For the last twenty years or so I’ve been fascinated by clouds; yes, both sides. Obviously there is the beauty, particularly on both edges of the day when the sun picks up the particles in the air adding color and depth to the sky. I’ve seen clouds seemingly on fire, cauldrons of atmosphere and angle. And the whiter-than-cotton billows of scattered clouds in a cobalt blue sky never fail to save me from whatever storms come along.

Since my son was a toddler we’d wander the docks along the Chesapeake Bay or the Rappahannock River finding just the right frame for whatever palette the sky prepared that day. After a while we learned to look out the window to the west or east just before dawn or dusk and know whether to bolt out the door for the water before whatever dance the clouds were doing lost the light. Sometimes we stand for a half an hour or more, just waiting for the moment when all aspects briefly gather for the right rendition of that day’s light. Over the years Michael turned his camera toward the water, zooming in on the colors and passing reflections there, developing his own unique style.

But I never left the sky.

Window seats on planes, walks on the beach, at stoplights, at night when a cloud moves across the moon, walking to my car from the store, across the local corn fields, really–all the time, I’m checking out the sky, mesmerized by the fleeting light. The finest of moments when the colors line up like professional models at a photo shoot seem to pass faster than they arrive. The moment is gone; that convergence of all things which made that moment right, pass all too fast; but I know that, so I like to be ready for it, and enjoy every single second. Sometimes I’ll take a ton of pictures trying to get just the right one, the one that expresses itself, pulls emotions out of whoever looks at it much like the late paintings of Van Gogh did. Sometimes I just take one or two and put the camera down and take in the sky, let it wash over me, the wave of atmosphere and twilight. “Blessed twilight” Dickens called it. Yes.

I don’t know why I do this. I really thought about it and the best I can come up with is it fills my soul with some sort of permanence which, ironically, has the finest disappearing act in nature. Also, perhaps, it is a daily reminder that we are surrounded by beauty if we take the time to step outside and look around—anywhere, the cities included. The sky over Brooklyn does not sacrifice the wonder.

Everything is fleeting, everything. The ones we’ve lost touch with, the ones we talk to daily, the ones we raised and the ones who raised us, gone as fast as it takes to look away and then back again. The beautiful lives who travel through this piece of sky with us, the horizon rising so fast before us.

And even during storms they retain their beauty, still whispering from the edges of our lives just waiting for us to show up. As soon as they’re gone, though, I’m sorry I didn’t spend more time with them, and I’m learning—a bit late perhaps—to linger just a little bit longer.

 

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Un Assuming

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Not everything is what it appears to be. In the absence of facts, the absence of conversation with someone, people tend to decide for themselves what “must have happened” instead of asking. It is frustrating and disappointing, particularly when you expected more from them than some silent judgement of any kind to begin with.

There are two ways to handle this: one is to confront them, to say to them, “Let’s talk; you seem to have a problem with how this has been handled.” In today’s political atmosphere where we are in no short supply of prejudice, amateur commentary, and where partial information dictates decisions and conclusions, it is no wonder we all are too familiar with this on some level in our lives. It happens very commonly to many people—homeless, unemployed, those on assistance, those addicted, those depressed, those who have one form or another of mental illness. Dare I say we are tragically used to people passing judgement on those souls? It happens, too, in the public domain—politics, religion, protests, marches, and other high-profile, media-doused situations. However, the saddest and most subtle form of judgement comes most often in personal and unassuming moments. Ironically, those opinions are rarely rendered verbally; unfortunately, silence can be akin to conviction, and confrontation seems inevitable to bring peace, or at the very least, some understanding.

I wonder if the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he exclaimed with such grace that he hoped his children would one day live in a nation where they would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” could have anticipated that most people wouldn’t take the time to even bother to learn a person’s character; or worse, make that judgment based upon a scattering of information determined from slices of rumors and off-hand guessing. It is tiring.

The second approach to such unstated reproach is harder: walk away. Just take a deep breath, accept the things you cannot change, and walk away. Like the song “From a Distance,” which exclaims the beauty of this planet when seen from afar, I’ve noticed that I care less about what people think but don’t say if the view is from this wilderness.

Ah, this wilderness.

Yesterday I noticed on the top bare branches of an old oak, small bunches of leaves caught like seaweed on a hook in the current, or like a pair of old sneakers tied together and tossed across a power line. Bunches of leaves that even this winter wind and rain and ice couldn’t cut loose. It was a moment of resistance and, yet, great peace. There’s a metaphor there waiting to happen.

It is cold, and tonight is the full moon, the super moon, an eclipsed moon, just before midnight or just after here on the East Coast. Right now out over the river it is bright, and the waves are crashing into each other and covering the turn-around at the end of the road near the water. There’s a negative wind chill, and the frozen pines are scrapping against each other testing their flexibility. Not all the trees are going to make it through this night.

I’m wondering where my friends are, and my family. Some are watching football, blood pressure rising with each bad call; some watching Outlander, blood pressure rising with each turn of phrase. I don’t know what some others are doing. I’ve not heard from them, or we’ve lost touch for some reason or another. 

I miss a quiet conversation about the journey, about the moon, about the beauty of a blue sky over an amber wheat field which no camera could hope to capture, and certainly not one in a cell phone. I miss pouring the next glass of wine, outside, laughing and then at some point making that turn toward serious conversation as we talk about those in our lives with so much less time left, and of those who need our care. I miss how tired we can get staying up so late to the point at which we want to turn in but don’t for the sheer peace found in the moment.

Bernard Malamud has a great line in his book, The Natural. He writes, “I believe we have two lives: the one we learn from, and the one we live after that.” It’s taken me much longer to reach Part Two than others I know, but that’s okay; I’m here, and I’ve done okay surrounding myself with beauty, whether it be here in nature and the sound of the wind on a cold night with a full moon, or in the souls of those who have allowed me in their lives, who stay up late and talk about the stars, or who rise too early for the sun and sit in silence watching the imperfect future come over the horizon. In this way I have learned to chase away depression which already spends too much time here, and recall, as often as I can, the first part of an e.e. cummings poem:

i shall imagine life
    is not worth dying, if
               (and when) roses complain
            their beauties are in vain

 

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Paraphrasing St. Bernard of Clairvaux

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My father enjoyed telling the story of how when I was young, despite having a number of different teachers who didn’t know each other in several different elementary schools, each teacher wrote the same thing on my report card: “Robert pays too much attention to the people around him in class.” I could say I was bored. I could make a case they all kept repeating themselves, or I could insist, “Honest to God I heard them the first time.” I could claim I was multitasking. But the truth is I am easily distracted. Several teachers said I needed everything repeated twice before I understood. It was Mr. Kingston, however, in fifth grade who took me aside and said, “You’re doing fine, Robert,” for the first time. I told him I make a lot of mistakes and he said, “Yes. Me too.”

Almost fifty years ago and I never forgot that, so at least I remembered something from Timber Point Elementary School. Still, I’ve packed on a plethora of mistakes since then.

A Russian nun once prayed for me for ten minutes at the Shrine of St Xenia. Then she gave me a piece of bread from the top of the sarcophagus and asked if I liked it. I wanted to say yes, I enjoyed her blessed bread, but my weak language skills kicked in and I told her, “I love you and lust for your black God.”

It is odd making other people laugh at what you say in a foreign language. Oh, there’s more:

I wanted to ask a cab driver where a bathroom was but ended up saying I like to drink dark beer from a toilet.

I told someone I thought was a waitress who turned out to be a prostitute what I thought was, “Yes I could use a few minutes to think,” which turned out to be, “Yes, I’d absolutely love oral sex.”

I pulled out a chair for a lady and told her to heel.

I asked for five sandwich rolls and walked out with fifteen. No fish.

A friend of mine wearing his priest’s collar wanted to tell the waitress he would like some mayonnaise and ended up saying, “I love to masturbate.”

Some friends went to buy coffee. The world in Russian for sugar is “Suga” but the word for bitch is “Suka.” They returned exclaiming, “Don’t ask for sugar in your coffee in Russia, Dude; they’re assholes about it.”

I could go on but more or less by screwing up I learned to fit in, pick up the nuances of accent and syllables, which brought down prices at the flea market, brought out their best Georgian wine, and opened gates to closed graveyards and monasteries. There are many more screw-ups but I’ve conveniently forgotten most of them.

This one stayed with me. At the back of one church, in the rubble of what was and would eventually again be St Catherine’s Catholic Church in the heart of St. Petersburg, a woman stood looking for a priest I knew. She seemed confused and we talked a bit—slowly of course, her in patient Russian and shattered English. Her grandmother had been the secretary of the church before the revolution seventy-five years earlier. In my weak Russian skills I determined the woman told me she had a huge cross to bear because of the horrors of communism and wanted the priest to take the sins away from her. But when Fr. Frank appeared, his translation was somewhat more significant. She had outside with her the original cross for the church dating back hundreds of years, which her grandmother had taken when the Bolsheviks took control after World War One, and which her family had wrapped in cloth and buried in the yard at their dacha where it remained for seventy-five years. She thought it was time to return it. It hangs again above the altar at St. Catherine’s.

Back at home and much more recently I showed my students how to present a paper using the guidelines from the Modern Language Association. I gave them copies, I presented another example on the outline, I asked them to open their books to the appropriate example in the text, and still forty percent of them did it completely wrong. Is that a mistake? Is that boredom? Distraction? Idiocy? I like to think they are overwhelmed and go home kicking themselves for doing something wrong that was so easy to get right, but I’m probably wrong. Not long ago I would have returned to a class like that and lectured them about how their priorities are screwed up; I would have told them that if they can’t get the easy stuff done they’ll never handle the challenges as they attempt to move up the collegiate ladder. I would have used the appropriate sarcasm with a touch  of attitude. But I recently altered my approach to, well, everything, and instead went back to class and said, “Simple mistakes, folks. Easily fixed. You’re doing fine. Let’s have another shot at it.”

Last year I was driving through the Pennsylvania countryside on my way to western New York on a Sunday morning when I heard a guest on a talk show quote St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who said we need to learn to make excuses for other people.

We need to learn to make excuses for other people. I turned off the radio and let that simmer inside for a while.

Sometimes if we see other people’s reasons for things, our world changes.

No professor likes students who come in late, or do a project completely wrong, or seem to be in their own little world. Still, I had one student who came in late because her husband is stationed in Iraq and she got to talk to him that afternoon. Another left early when she found out her father was dying. I remember clearly the one who couldn’t get the presentation correct no matter how hard he tried, but he has never been the same since returning from war. And the one that gives me pause still is the woman who stared at me the entire class without blinking an eye, then left, only to email me later an apology, that she wasn’t concentrating, that she had just learned her cousin was shown on television in Baghdad, dead and left swinging from a bridge.

I teach in a different environment here in the military rich resort of Virginia Beach. We learn to make excuses for other people because so many of these people don’t have excuses, they have interrupted lives. Their mistakes aren’t so much mistakes as they are simply, unfortunately, lessons set aside for later.

St. Francis de Sales said, “Never confuse your mistakes with your value.”

I am still learning to separate the two, mistakes and value. Maybe that’s why I spend so much time in nature—there are no mistakes there; value is an abstract concept. It’s the only place where it is necessary to just sit back and let it all be.

I hope others learn to make excuses for me. Every once in a while I whisper to myself “You’re doing fine, Robert,” like a fifth grade teacher might. But my language skills are not as sharp as they used to be, and I know I’m paying way too much attention to the people around me, but that’s okay. It helps me keep still, like a clear morning before sunrise when the water is calm and the promise of the day that I woke up to is still forgiving.

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