Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Poetry of This Moment

Here comes summer with all its warm nights and whispers, the glow of televisions in windows up and down the block.  The heat never fully leaves, but the dawn brings some cool relief, damp and full of promise.  These are the nights I stay up late, reading, thinking, considering the stars.

The struggle comes with the switch to summer living.  I am not good with down time.  I crave the pressure, the busyness of a full daily schedule.  Then summer hits, and suddenly things slow a bit, switch tempo, start a new song.  And I am left out of the dance.

I have projects waiting, writing to be done, but somehow, I wander through the days.  Evening comes and I wonder where the time went.  Meanwhile, others around me are busy.  Not everyone’s life slows down with summer.

One of the hardest things for us to do is live in the moment.  The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us:  “One generation passes and another comes, but the world forever stays.  The sun rises and the sun goes down; then it presses on to the place where it rises.  Blowing now toward the south then toward the north, the wind turns again and again, resuming its rounds.  All rivers go to the sea, yet never does the sea become full.  To the place where they go, the rivers keep on going.  All speech is labored; there is nothing man can say.  The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor is the ear filled with hearing.”

That is the feeling of summer for me:  “my eye is not satisfied.”  It is not because there is nothing to see; I am simply not seeing it, because I miss the storms of winter.  It is the paradox of life that we try to see the whole of years instead of the moments that add up to the making.  So I am trying, against my nature, to see the moments, or moment, the poetry of this moment.  That is the message of this summer for me:  the poetry of this moment.  I must fully absorb and appreciate it while it lasts because far too quickly, the summer days will be gone, the fall of the year will come, and another season will begin.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Death and Death Revisited

There is no doubt that in its time, Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death Revisited (Vintage Books, 2000) changed how the funeral industry does business in this country much the same way that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (See Sharp Press, 2003) changed the meat-packing industry in Chicago.  Mitford, with diligence, grace, and humor, opened America’s eyes.  The irony is that the book was almost dead before it saw the light of publication.  Houghton Mifflin, as Mitford recounts in the Introduction, thought the book too graphic, especially the details of the embalming process which happen to be the most interesting pages.  Luckily, Robert Gottlieb of Simon & Schuster stepped in to publish the original edition back in 1963.

The book spawned legislation to regulate the funeral industry, and put undertakers, mortuary workers, funeral directors, or whatever name they go by these days, on notice.  These groups responded with negative ad campaigns aimed at Mitford and her work, and they soon found ways to circumvent and dilute the legislative mandate to treat grieving Americans with fairness and ethical consideration.

Anyone who has planned a funeral for a loved one knows the funeral industry is full of sharks.  A good man, or woman, is definitely hard to find in the charnel house.  I remember when I planned my mother’s funeral a few years ago, I was forced to mediate a feud between the mortuary and the hospital where she died.  Over a perceived insult, the mortuary refused to pick up my mother’s body.  When, after two to three phone calls to each party, I threatened to borrow my father’s truck and get her myself, the mortuary acquiesced.  I was relieved.  Then I demanded they waive the fee.  They did, but I’m sure they tacked it on elsewhere in the final bill, a common practice according to Mitford.  In her research, the funeral industry always gets its money somehow.  They specialize in preying on those going through the worst time of their lives.

Mitford takes pains to tell the reader not only what happens behind the mortuary door, but also the math involved.  It’s all about huge mark-ups, unexplained fees, dubious insistence that embalming and other accoutrements are “legally required,” and downright immoral and deceptive behavior.  Funeral directors bet on the fact that those locked in grief will not shop around, but it is indeed what one must do to combat this scourge.  Mitford ends the book by saying, “Remember, above all, that many funeral homes have a ‘no-walk’ policy, which means simply that if and when you start to walk out, the price will come down, down, down until a level acceptable to you is reached.”

The book is well-written and informative, a classic in nonfiction literature.  In its current incarnation as an updated edition, (hence the “Revisited” tag) the original is not greatly improved upon.  The book still serves the purpose to remind consumers to question everything and let the buyer beware.

In Michelle Williams’ book, Down Among The Dead Men (Soft SkullPress, 2010), she focuses on her work in a hospital mortuary in Gloucestershire, England.  This is a different system from America in that Williams preps the bodies for autopsy and release to funeral directors accompanied, often, by the coroner.  In a natural death, the hospital mortuary drains fluids, examines organs, and restores the body for burial, unlike in the U.S. where mortuary workers independent of the hospital perform this function.  If a body requires an autopsy for court or law enforcement, the coroner comes to the hospital morgue and performs the procedure.  There is no separate autopsy at a medical examiner’s office.

Williams’ stories cover the spectrum of death from natural to criminal homicide.  She tells some interesting tales to be sure, however, when she strays off into her own drinking and family life, the pace of the book slows.  Her storytelling ability is competent, if not spellbinding.  The reader should be warned that a strong stomach is a necessity for some of the more graphic cases she describes.

Both books take us behind the scenes of the greatest mystery of human existence, that “undiscovered country” from where no one returns.  Some prefer not to look on death before the moment.  Others want a hint, even if there is a line we may never cross until the time our heart ceases to beat, the light dies, and we are gone.  For we, the living, at least for now, there is a choice.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Lay Your Burden Down

We cling to what we know.  We grab the knife by the blade end and grip it so tight even as we feel the cut deep into the thick flesh of our palm.  In the face of pain, we can’t let go.  Through the blood and suffering, we hang on with the desperation of a drowning man.  In the scope of years or the collision of circumstances, some of us learn an important lesson.  The daily scrapes and bruises finally register.  What should we do?  We must let go.  In life, as soon as we latch on to something, it is a safe bet that the ground beneath our feet will shift.  The only constant is that nothing is constant.  Everything must change or die.

This is the message of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Anger:  Wisdom for Cooling the Flames.  Indeed, it is a consistent theme in every treatise of eastern philosophy or Zen Buddhism.  When anger rises, according to Hanh, we must concentrate on breathing or walking, and simply recognize the feelings before letting them go.  No one should stay angry more than 24 hours.  No one should repress the feelings, either.  Recognition and letting go are keys to overcoming the flash of anger.

I picked up Hanh’s book because I found resonance in his other works.  He is a prolific writer and Vietnamese Buddhist who now lives in France.  Even across contemporary religions, Hanh’s words carry much meaning, and he makes clear that one need not be a Buddhist to understand his message.  In fact, he goes out of his way to relate his teachings to Catholics, Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  Truly, though, he speaks to us as human beings, and that is what makes him an indispensable writer for me.  His message in Anger is one I needed to hear right now in this moment.

For 25 years, I have been a teacher.  When it started, it was magical.  I watched my students learn, discover, and become more sure of themselves.  I watched them achieve.  Often, I felt they were taking me on a journey.  In spite of my uncertain lessons, my constant revision of my teaching practice, my students learned.  As I taught them, they were also teaching me, and I was an eager student.

As I assumed more and more responsibility, became a department chair, served on committees, taught other teachers, formulated theories about how students learn, I felt my career arc soar.  Then, almost imperceptibly, something changed.  More and more bureaucracy and political correctness crept in.  “We don’t teach literature that disturbs,” a principal told me.  “We need to consider what we want our ‘product’ to look like,” said another.  By “product,” she meant a human being, a graduating student.  Test scores dominated the discussion in the evaluation of teachers over the less quantifiable inspiration of students to become life-long learners.

I found myself feeling angry, unfulfilled, frustrated.  People were missing the point.  They were corrupting the system, and students were suffering as a result.  Children were not being prepared for the challenges of life.  They were turning away from learning and focusing on outcomes rather than process.  In the classroom, I got questions like, “How will this help me get a job?”  Or, “Just tell me what I need to know to get an A.”  From my administrators, I heard, “Can’t we cut the curriculum and focus on preparing them for the test?”

The passionate vocation was starting to feel like a middle management job.  Paperwork in, paperwork out.  Meet the quotas.  Keep pushing the stone up the hill every day even as it rolled back each night.  Lots of people now got involved in education not because they wanted to motivate and inspire students to learn, but because they had their own self-serving agendas.  I longed for the days where I could provoke my students to think about their world.  I wanted to make them feel their lives—all the joy, pain, suffering and exhilaration of existence.  Yes, I’d teach writing and literature, but I did not want to teach to a test or sell my kids short.  The real point of an education is to teach someone how to live.  No standardized test measures that.

In my anger and frustration, I realized I needed to lay the burden down.  The system cannot be changed overnight, and pounding my head against the wall was really only giving me a worse headache.  We must do what we can where we are with what we have, something else I learned from eastern philosophy.  These ideas carried over into other areas of my life.  I am often told my intensity could be mistaken for anger, that I am too forceful about the way things should be done.  When I say that I am simply passionate, especially about writing, literature and teaching, people tell me no one reads anymore.  Thoughtful essays are ignored.  It’s 140 characters on Twitter.  Anything more is not worth the effort.

But I believe with a religious faith that good writing and literature, like good teaching, will reawaken the sleeping giant of intellect.  I simply refuse to lower my expectations.  The voice in the wilderness, despite all evidence to the contrary, is still viable.  Like so many things that have disappeared, we must find a way to transform them for this new age.  Teaching “old school” in a new way will not make us dinosaurs; it will make us visionaries.  However, we cannot keep moaning about what is lost because we will be left behind.  In this case, it is not so much that we jettison the burden of anger, but that we lay it down for a moment to rethink our path.  Anger can be constructive when we steel ourselves against its corrosive effects and learn to recognize it and use it as a tool to redouble our efforts in a positive way.  Anger, in the end, can destroy or rebuild, incinerate or motivate.  We make the choice.  When we have paused to consider what is elemental—breathing in, breathing out—we can pick ourselves up with renewed strength to face the challenges in our lives.  We can live to fight another day.