A Kind Morning

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I am writing in Panera this morning, finishing a chapter, eating a breakfast sandwich, drinking some hibiscus iced tea, listening to perfect background music, after a nice long walk on the beach this morning. It’s a nice day. I’m in a happy place. Plus, you know, free refills.

It isn’t crowded and a supervisor here has six or seven workers cleaning the hell out of this place. One woman pushed a carpet sweeper (not a vacuum, one of those quiet ones so I can still hear the music, thank you) under my feet several times, but I resisted telling her the egg she was getting was already there when I sat down. With each new area, her boss reassured her she was doing a fantastic job. Another gentleman cleaned the one other chair at my table—over and over for a few minutes I might add; the chair is clean. Then he took the supervisor’s encouraging words to heart when she told him to take his time and clean every single chair as perfectly as he had the first; he asked if I wouldn’t mind moving to the other chair so that he could clean mine. I happily obliged. It gave me a chance to see my earlier work from a different perspective. Honestly, it helped me see so much from a different perspective. Interestingly, he looked very familiar, but after teaching so long eventually everyone looks vaguely familiar.

The supervisor heartily apologized but I said it was absolutely not an issue, that she should be very proud of her employees. I told her I’ve been working with people about the same age as these workers for thirty years and I’ve never seen such dedication to completing the job, and doing it right. She thanked me and agreed they are that reliable. She turned to the woman closest to me, the carpet sweeper, and said, “Did you hear that?” and the worker smiled wide and said, “Why yes I did! Thank you sir!” and she clapped and a few other workers clapped and the supervisor laughed and smiled at me and whispered “Thank you again,” and I told her, quietly, “really, thank you.”

I then recalled that the young woman who brought me my breakfast sandwich was especially helpful in placing it down and asking if there was anything I needed and if I wanted a refill on the iced tea she’d be happy to get it, and she would be back to check. Yes, I’m at Panera. I did, in fact, need a refill of my hibiscus tea but decided to retrieve it myself. When I returned, a cinnamon roll had been placed at my table and the young woman said, “This is from Ellen (the supervisor).” She saw my tea as I sat down and said, “Oh I was going to get that!” and laughed and walked away.

These are very special-needs workers. I just learned they’ve been employed here for quite some time and the gentleman I recognized used to work at a Farm Fresh Supermarket I frequented before it closed down; he retrieved the carts. I am glad to see him working again.

The list of things that are absolutely right and good here is extensive. I am one among millions these days caught in the current of irrational leadership, negative reinforcement, unwarranted personal criticism, and basic meanness and hatred. Here among these fine people is the example of all we can be; the potential each of us can hope to obtain; such ethics, such basic decency to others.

I am coming back. I found my new office. Please, if you are ever on Lynnhaven Parkway in Virginia Beach, Virginia, just near the mall, patronize this Panera. They’re setting the example.

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In the Space of Fifty Years

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We looked at the stars again. Saw some passing meteors and the nearly full moon of course. And a few planets. But mostly stars. I don’t know their names and no matter how many times I read about them or someone explains them to me, that part of my brain simply doesn’t operate well anymore. I know Orion because of the old Orion Motion Pictures; that’s it. It is the same part of the brain that doesn’t allow me to remember names of students or meeting times. But out under the stars on a clear cold night you really don’t need to know the names of anything; not the stars, not students, not the days of the week or the towns on a map. It is late, and you’re outside like our primitive ancestors stood outside and there are stars, the exact stars our original DNA saw, and labels are useless, except to call them timeless, to call them exquisite, and to know that they are.

Some nights the temperatures are freezing, but that is usually because of no haze or cloud cover so the stars are even more brilliant. With the small scope we can see the rings of Saturn and four of Jupiter’s moons. We have also seen Venus and Mars, and a herd of constellations that start with a P or a C, I forget. One of them is Pleiades, I know that. They are the seven sisters.

I do know the big dipper when I see it, and a long time ago I saw the Southern Cross on a continent far away. I assume the brightest star I see so often in the south is either Alpha Centauri or Vega, but I really don’t care one way or the other. I’m not going there, not teaching astronomy, and I’m not trying to impress anyone at all. I did take an astronomy class in college, and on one cold night we took a powerful telescope to a hillside and took turns scanning the sky. When it was my turn I said, “This is out of focus; it’s all fuzzy,” to which the professor looked and exclaimed, “Holy Cow, you found a nebula!” He then told me I didn’t discover one but I did point the telescope toward a fuzzy patch someone else had discovered. Still, I’m not unromantic—I wasn’t oblivious to the idea that I was staring deep into space, across billions of years ago toward eternities from now.

I can’t wait for clear nights at home when we can see stars in the darkness across the bay or the river, but what I enjoy looking at the most is the moon. I never tire of staring at the craters, especially when it is a half-moon, which makes the craters so much easier to see than when the moon is full. My son will point the telescope toward Saturn’s rings or Jupiter’s moons and I’ll say, “Yeah, nice, now let’s look at our moon again.” He always obliges, but I understand why it isn’t as important to him as it is me.

In the late sixties I was just another kid like so many caught up in the space race, following the Apollo missions as they came close to the moon, orbiting it, sending back images of its surface. I had a brown jacket with a NASA patch sewed on the sleeve and an American flag on the other. I knew every aspect of space travel—the speed needed to exit the earth’s gravitational pull, how the Saturn V rocket was built, the space inside, the Space outside, the purpose of each mission, and the names of every single astronaut.

I turned nine in July of ’69 and we just moved into our new home. I remember my sister sitting on the floor and I joined her as we watched Walter Cronkite dictate the actions of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin while Michael Collins orbited above them. The next evening, I remember going outside and looking up at the sky, knowing they were up there and wanting more than anything to go there someday. We then lived in a world where we had walked on the moon. Incredible. It was the first serious ambition I remember; I wanted to train at NASA and be an astronaut. Of course. It wasn’t because I liked the science—my brother is the scientist in the family. No, it was because I liked the ambition of it all, the pursuit of something seemingly impossible, literally otherworldly.

Even at nine it meant to me that despite the turmoil of the sixties we kept our eye on the ball and refused to believe we could not achieve Kennedy’s decree. I am not sure the succeeding generations have a comparable ambition, at least not one as grand. Mars? Someday. Not yet.

So we go out and look at the stars and the full moon, and whenever I do I have hope again, despite the problems with the Russians (like in ’69), or bad race relations (like in ’69), or protests on campuses (like in ’69). It seems we have lost that spark, just a bit, and that’s okay for people like me who had that time, had that foundation of combining dreams with plans, ambitions with determination, like NASA did when I was young. But I wonder what the nine-year-old’s today turn to for that lesson of hope, that example of integrity and focus. What field do children’s fathers bring them to just before sundown to sit on lawn chairs and wait for what happens? An empty field has the potential of the sum of all possibility.

Humanity needs something larger than itself to shoot for. We can over-focus on tragedies and deceptions, leaving us the impression that today’s headlines are the beginning and ending of our existence. In the midst of such madness, striving toward an almost impossible ambition provides the perspective necessary to keep moving forward, to keep hope, to keep enough integrity to recognize we can do better than this. The greatest minds combined in the history of humanity have not yet figured it all out; but the pursuit itself has always been their purpose. We have focused too close to home, aiming merely to achieve; what a disappointing ambition. Perhaps we don’t spend enough time outside, where all desire begins, where all hope is born. 

Maybe too many people think everything’s already been discovered. I’m sure others felt like that every step of the way from the Dark Ages through the Renaissance. And for the record, it wasn’t Galileo who first mapped the moon after seeing it through his telescope. That inaccurate historical note goes to Englishman Thomas Harriot who mapped the moon in July of 1609 several months before Galileo; 360 years nearly to the day before my sister and I sat on the floor and watched Neil Armstrong step down onto the lunar surface.

Can we reach the stars someday? Hell, I can’t even name the damn things, but I’m glad someone smarter than me is mapping the way. It was U.S. astronomer and pioneer of Dark Matter, Vera Rubin, who noted that more than anything else the discovery of the far reaches of space should teach us humility. We all could use a little reminder that we are at best merely guests here, moving through, making room for others hundreds of years from now to look up at the skies and marvel at the nebula, be amazed again at the craters on the moon.

 

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10 Thoughts Five Months Out

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1.

Most of the people I’ve known in twenty-nine years of teaching college should not be there, or they should be there and I shouldn’t; either way, someone’s out of place, and it’s probably me since I find myself that way most of the time—out of place. Like when I first started teaching and I was nearly the same age as the students who all were about the same age as each other so anyone of us could have been any other one of us. But I was the professor and everyone else wasn’t, and because it was their first time ever in a college and my first time ever teaching, college or otherwise, we were all a bit awkward and out of place. This really could have gone either way; disaster of the blind leading the blind, or one massive group therapy session in college composition. We all pulled and pushed each other through by our commas until we ended up twenty-nine years down the line, the students all with doctorates or partnerships and me walking away from the college feeling like I just wasted three decades.

2.

Once, a student wanted to go on a study abroad to Russia with me and I thought it was a great idea because she was so enthusiastic; I mean, more enthusiastic than any of the other hundreds of students I’d brought before. She told me she was going to have a baby and would be about four months pregnant on the trip but the doctor said no problem so she went. She was by far the most exciting person to have along, videotaping everything, photographing everything, and asking questions; and she even took the lead several times on tours through St Petersburg. Once, she was walking right in front of me at a full clip and was about to step out into oncoming traffic, ignoring my lecture about pedestrians not having the right-of-way, and I grabbed her by the hair and pulled her back out of the line of a speeding truck. This delivery truck was close enough to her to pull the bag out of her hands and onto the ground, and she said, “He saw me!” I told her yes, and probably he aimed; when we got home we told that story with a laugh like most people do when the shock and fear of what could have happened wears off. We connected well and she was like a much younger sister or daughter, and she had her baby and brought her to see me. She had promised to bring by the photos and videos from the trip sometime but she never did. She never did, no, she never had the chance. Her ex, the baby’s father, went to her apartment one evening to take their child. She ran outside terrified and hid in the bushes and called 911, and the operator heard her whisper “He saw me” just as her ex shot her in the back of the head and took the baby; Fuck. I almost quit then. It’s all so fragile, I thought.
3.

I almost quit after 911. I thought, like a lot of people thought, my already questionable career became irrelevant. It wasn’t of course; it just needed serious reevaluation.

4.

My first boss and I had a disagreement about procedure. It was after I had the students read Hamlet and they didn’t and after asking a few simple questions which they could not answer I asked who had read it and they all admitted they had not. So I told them they were all absent and told them to have it read by the following class, and they really should since after six classes of these “absences” I can drop the entire lot of them. I left and someone complained to my boss. He called me in and politely told me he had tried the same thing once and I really shouldn’t do that since a more appropriate approach is to simply give them a quiz and fail them. When I told him I didn’t want to teach them material they didn’t bother to read he said they might not have had a chance to get the work done, being a community college with workers and single parents and a variety of other excuses. I left his office. The following class I sat and opened to Hamlet and told them I was aware someone had complained and that I was told to handle it differently. I told them my boss wanted them to know I didn’t know who complained and that their complaint was taken seriously. When everyone seemed satisfied I asked who had read Hamlet, and when everyone admitted they still had not yet read it I stood up and said they were all absent—again—and they had better read it by the following class. I walked down the hall into my bosses office, told him what happened and told him if he thinks interfering with my teaching methods is a good idea then he should teach the damn class. He stared at me a long time and then laughed and said he bet they’d read the play now and told me to have a good weekend. This is insane, I thought. The students did read the play, but by then I no longer cared.
5.

I went into class one day and just stared ranting: The problem isn’t technology or over-attachment to cell phones or drugs or violence or video games or sex, too much or too little. The problem is college is boring, it is boring, It. Is. Boring. The problem is college is boring, it’s as boring as fuck, as boring as uncooked potatoes; it is as boring as a completely blue sky, as boring as season four of House where you already know how this shit plays out, it is that boring. Like the fourth movement of a bad symphony, like the way a guitar player feels the need to talk while tuning, it is as boring as an airport, as boring as a bus ride, as a rock garden, as John Cage’s 4’ 34”, it is that boring. Everyone here knows they can do an IT Boot Camp for six grand and get placed in a job making 40K, and they can work from home, they can live in Dad’s basement, they can, of course they can. But they don’t yet know that if they are that bored that they will probably find all of life boring as hell and it isn’t, and I told them that, and I pointed out how the completely blue sky has infinite stories, but they didn’t understand. I’m not very good at this, I thought.

Someone complained again. Go figure. “I’m sorry; he’s right,” my boss told the student. I liked my boss more than my job, and that isn’t right. I almost quit then.

6.

I’m bored. I’m leaving. It isn’t you, it’s me. I sold out I went for the paycheck when I never wanted to be part of this relationship to begin with. I totally whored out my entire career, took a dump on integrity, spit in the face of self-respect. I made a grave mistake; I took the job, I took the damn job. A lot of people are going to say I’m out of my mind for leaving and I should have worked it out but the truth is I’m bored, and tired and I’ve had enough. So, yeah, take care. See ya.

7.

I knew these people: Trish hung herself because her meds got messed up. Reetika killed her son and then herself because she didn’t like her husband. Dave sucked an exhaust pipe. Bud popped himself on live television. I’ve known these people. I’ve wrapped my arms around too many people who saw no way out; I’ve made them drinks, I’ve made them mad. I’m not like that, though people do worry about my bouts with impatience and distance. They have worried for a long time. I get calls: “Are you alright?” They don’t know, they just don’t and they’re worried about me. That isn’t fair. But if I have to explain to another student one more time the concept of double negatives I’ll be doing time for something. I have colleagues who can work with the eight people out of one hundred I actually asked who was shot at the Ford’s Theater in 1865 and these eight answered Christopher Columbus, but I’m not one of them. I don’t have the patience, or, more so, the interest. I’ve reached my limit on defining “complete thought.” I’ve done all I can about explaining the difference between “search” and “research.” I know for certain that if I saw one more student text someone while I was talking, I might have thrown the phone into the campus lake. I know this. This was a big red flag for me.

8.

When I first heard I had been hired back during the Bush 41 administration I was sitting on a picnic table behind the humanities building. My boss walked out and told me I got the job, which meant a great salary, benefits, and security. I was a college professor. My family was thrilled, I suddenly was met with respect when asked what I did for a living. “I’m a college professor” comes in second for respect just behind doctors. My path had been cleared; my future in tact. My boss asked what I would have done if I didn’t get hired full time, and I told him I really didn’t know. He asked if I had been scared that I wouldn’t get the job. No, I said.

Almost immediately something wasn’t right, something sour in my stomach. Really, right away something felt wrong with this, and I think it had something to do with the realization that no where on my long list of hopes and plans and dreams and ambitions was “teaching college.” I got the job but lost my nerve. That’s usually how it goes. I am not afraid of commitment. I am afraid of wasting time. It terrifies me. But I was about to have a son and it was time to get serious. I wanted to say to the people in my life, “I’m sorry if my decisions are not in line with what you would have done, that they can be seen as irresponsible, that they can be regarded as misguided, but I’ve made up my mind,” but I didn’t; I was a coward—I took the job.
9.

I drove by the campus recently and it didn’t feel close, didn’t feel a part of my past at all, let alone my recent past. It felt more like I used to know someone who worked there but only vaguely. A friend texted and asked what I was going to do next and I said I wasn’t sure, and she said, “Well, at least you have experience at that.”

Then she said, honestly, then she said, “Well, after more than thirty years it sounds like you’re finally the Bob I knew again,” and I put down the phone and cried because that was the only thing I ever wanted, to be myself again. And for everyone else, sorry if you don’t agree with my decisions; but they’re not yours. Isn’t that the best we can do? To know that the final decisions about ourselves are actually our own? If that is the grand test in life, I finally got one right.

10.

I can’t possibly count the amount of things I would have done differently in my life, but I love this one quote which has followed me since college. It is by Leo Buscaglia, and we exchanged letters many years ago, and I picked up one of his books in which I keep those letters, and it was on the page of this quote:

“I exist, I am, I am here, I am becoming, I make my own life and no one else makes it for me. I must face my own shortcomings, mistakes, 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.” 
                                                                                                   ― Leo F. Buscaglia,

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Fade to Now

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Maybe it is the current environment, waiting for the other shoe to drop, the sense when I turn on the news in the morning that I’m going to see a special report about some bomb, some decision which brings us closer to annihilation. But more than ever in my life I’m in search of simplicity, of those perfect moments we normally only experience with people we love. You know the ones—laughing with someone so hard that just recalling that moment makes you laugh again; a deep conversation over a glass of wine about the beauty of simplicity, the meaning of it all. Maybe you go for a walk and there’s a soft breeze; maybe you sit on the porch and there are a million stars, or maybe just a gentle rain falling on the awning and the sound is as eternal as a sigh. Those moments when what was and what will be are shrouded by the widening love of that moment. Those times. We live for those times.

Of course we can’t always live in the moment. By nature we remember and plan, and the need to survive requires lessons and anticipation. But the art of being mindful of the now is slipping away. We are engrossed in connections.

Distraction has crept into our lives like a slowly rising tide, soaking the moments normally set aside for a little peace of mind. We check the phone, get online, get absorbed by news updates, protests, uprisings, the falling Dow, we jump at the “bing,” worry about what didn’t get done, worry about what might happen. When we used to let go and simply “Be,” we now hold on, afraid of missing something, believing we need to keep up, stay informed. There is always—always—human sound streaming from somewhere; unfortunately it is rarely laughter. Hell, even tears would do if it meant a moment of honesty. But instead it is a video, music, conversations, the press, the pressing need to know, the pressure of parenthood, of teenagehood, of the extraordinary task of having an ordinary day.

This isn’t leading anywhere. I don’t have a solution, I really don’t. I don’t know what to tell you. It simply is an observation.

As for me, I’ll walk the water’s edge and think about walking the water’s edge. I’ll talk to a friend and share some wine and laugh about what strikes us, have deep conversations about what sets our souls on fire, and then try and keep it burning well into what’s next.

I have a few symptoms of this chronic condition called “time.” My wrist hurts for no reason at all; I have memory issues; I listen to a lot of Van Morrison. Still, I am fine with all that; it is like the proctor calling out from the front desk that there is only thirty minutes left to finish the exam: it makes me sit up and get down to business.

And it helps me focus on simplicity and the moment I’m in. One of the advantages of trying to focus on the “now” is I don’t really need too much memory to do that anyway. All I need is a place to walk.

And breadcrumbs. I should probably bring breadcrumbs.

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Transitions

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I am not a shell collector. I have a few by virtue of living near the water. And, of course, some I picked up on travels to Florida where the shells are beautiful. I do have an affinity for scallop shells, however. They are the symbol of the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St James. In medieval times, pilgrims would bring a shell back from the Atlantic to their parishes in France and Italy and other places as proof of completion of The Way. Today it represents the journey itself, both going and coming back.

So this morning I went for a long walk on the beach at Casey Key. I looked for shells on the same sands scoured by my friend Deb whose collection rivals that of anyone’s anywhere. It is phenomenal. But I don’t have her eye for shells in the sand. Part of that is my mind wanders when walking. It always does. It takes me some time to adjust from a normal schedule during a normal week to a non-schedule. 

Which is why this morning I halfheartedly wandered along the waterline, picking up and tossing back broken shells, paying more attention to the water sliding past my ankles and out. I was thinking more about an essay I’m working on for a reading later this week. It is about the floods of eastern Siberia when Michael and I were there, and the possibility of the tracks being damaged by water on our way to Vladivostok. Often, I work on essays while walking, finding the digression, trying to extract the predictable.

I’m not alone in being distracted at the beginning and end of vacations, trips, retreats. The first few days we often worry if everything back home was taken care of, then we concern ourselves with the new routine of not going to work, not returning calls, not checking email. Eventually, we settle in to simply enjoy the passing of now. But then toward the end we bend back into leaving, thinking about the “week ahead,” about what is waiting for us and piled up while gone. So the “vacation” days designated to the middle often don’t amount to much, but they remain the time we need; the value in taking off our armor and being ourselves, completely in the moment. 

So I let go. A dozen dolphins swept past and kept me in that moment for quite some time, the way they break the surface, the way one of them was a spinner, the way their return to these waters indicates the dangerous Red Tide is dissipating.

And I found a few shells. The best way to describe them is as small conch shells—really tiny ones, about two inches long. Most of these, when I do find them, have cracks or wide holes, but a few were in tact, survived the pounding waves and undercurrent. The shells themselves are simply the outer body part of an animal that has died and the soft parts of the animal have been eaten or decomposed.

Shells themselves have been used as money since the 13th century BC, and in some places such as West Africa, were still used that way well into the 20th century. A woman’s dowry would often consist of shells.

Hindus used left facing conch shells to hold holy water, and right facing ones are one of the eight auspicious symbols sacred to Buddhists. And of course shells have been used as tools and utensils for tens of thousands of years. The ones I have collected I’ll put on a bookshelf to remember my walks along these beaches.

The dolphins returned, and pelicans as well. A few dozen sandpipers chased each other in unison and the waves picked up out in front of Hurricane Michael off the coast of Cuba moving up into the Gulf and headed north just to the west. Post-hurricane high tide should mean fine shell searching.

When my own Hurricane Michael and I were in Spain, we wore the scallop shells on our packs. Painted in the center of the back is a red cross of St James. Today it sits on a bookshelf near my journals of that trip, and when I glance that way I recall cafes, walking through Galacia, or climbing the Pyrenees. The shell is an icon, a window to those times.

I knew I was moving toward leaving the Key when my mind shifted again toward Siberia and floods, the rumbling of the train, and the reading I have this week in Tampa. I’m not sure the essay is ready, and I need to print it out, and I hope the hotel in Tampa has a printer. Small thoughts, premature thoughts, seeping into the end of my walk.

Maybe that’s why the shells—they’re objects from the middle when I was still focused on shape and color, texture, water running up my calves. To me my friend’s collection represents more than the beauty and miracle of nature, it symbolizes retreat, it stands as her way of being in the moment. 

Perhaps writing is my way of collecting shells, albeit in the shape of stories.

I think that’s what’s missing in the Siberian piece. The water running up the tracks, the texture and color of the river beneath the rails. So often the trip is about being in motion, rolling along, eating, drinking, talking to people and watching the landscape; but during the floods we were focused on the here and now, the unknown and unpredictable. We didn’t know what we would find; we really had no idea what we might find and we kept eyeing the waterline and waiting.

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