A couple decades ago I thought I wanted to be a teacher. I went through all the rites of passage, got the pieces of paper, got the job, and after nine months realized it wasn't what I wanted to do. I was young then. It was easy to walk into the office and say I've changed my mind. I want to do something else with my life.
I count it as one of the smartest decisions I ever made. Recently I've made a decision that is about on the same level as that one for the potential to change my life. I have days when I shake in fear and others when I can't wait to get out of bed to begin my day. The deciding factor for me was realizing that if I want to do certain things with my life, now is the time to do them. I'm not a kid anymore. I don't recover as easily anymore. But the tradeoff is that the decisions I make now are based on so much more than I WANT. They are based on what happened in the past, what I know and don't know, and my ability to learn. I have a lot more confidence in myself at the age of 56 than I did at 30. It comes from knowing I can pick myself up from the ground, dust myself off, and move forward in any direction I choose.
I've shaken some people up with my decisions lately. They don't understand why I have to cut the ropes and fly free with no real destination in mind other than the desire to fly. Sometimes that just has to be enough. :-)
One of the people I shook up dug up this story I wrote the week I quit teaching. He or she chose to send it to me anonymously, using an old email address I long ago let go. They went through the trouble of re-opening it in my old pseudonym and becoming me and sending it to my current email. I cannot let such efforts go unrewarded. Therefore, I share the story they sent me that I wrote all those years ago. I was about the same age as many of you when I wrote it. Maybe it has something for you. Consider it a true gift from me on a date when people are less than serious as a reminder that those who fail to laugh at themselves never really learn what it means to be alive.
Peace! COL of Peace
RITES OF SPRING
Today my Zebra finches gave birth--round, pink, hairless bodies echoing the spring births outside my own nest.
“Rites of passage, rites of self."
I think how strange that your words should return now, weeks later, to blend with the sound of those new-born voices, the sound of the wind rising off the bay. I feel a quiet sadness as I watch the wind claim the last of the clinging blossoms from the small apple tree outside my window. As the fragile petals float past my window, my sadness brings back the memory of you sitting at the kitchen table that last evening we spent together, that last meal we shared with each other.
"We’ve grown apart," you said, refusing to look at me, refusing to touch me.
"I love you," I said. "Isn’t that enough? Isn’t love enough?"
Your answer was to go out in the garden and pick a branch of apple blossoms from the small tree. As you set the branch on my kitchen table you said: "You have shown me I will never understand writers."
I touched the frail blossoms and said softly: “Never is a long time. “
It is such a small tree, such a shadow of the larger one growing beside it. The large tree will one day give so much fruit; the small one will remain a memory of blossoms following the wind. For weeks, I watched that branch of apple blossoms go through the process of dying. Each day, as I watched that branch wither and die a little at a time, I knew something else was dying. Yet after all these weeks, the scent still remains, the memory of fruit is still so strong.
“Words...goddamn words," you said to me as you were leaving. I gave you a poem written on delicate tissue paper. “Leave before they steal your soul,” you said to me, crying, afraid to touch me because then you would no longer have a reason for leaving.
”I love you,” I said instead of goodbye.
“I love you,” I now say to the wind, to the finches, to the memory of you. Today is a reminder of passing time, a reminder that with the birth of my finches, I have been set free--from you, from my job, from my students, from my absurd life. If only I could somehow let you know. But, I could only do it with more words, and there are too many of those separating us as it is. If only you could have seen me today when I decided to celebrate birth by resigning from teaching. I did it so gracefully, with my first genuine smile of spring.
“I’m not coming back,” I said. It was so easy, so quick, so anti-climatic. Such a painless birth. I should have done it sooner; perhaps the day before, the day one of my students leaned in the open doorway of my office.
He stood there for several minutes, afraid to come in, afraid to reveal the words so painfully written on the pile of papers he clutched to his chest. His smooth face was too young for the despair in his eyes, the despair I recognized as coming from trying to re-create life, from trying to isolate feeling into lines of black ink on white pages.
”I want to be a writer,” he said as I pushed aside my pile of half-written stories, hunted for my overflowing ashtray underneath the pages of empty poetry--nine months of words which never came close to what I really felt.
“What on earth for?” I said with too much dismay in my voice, too much kinship with his pain. “It’s such an absurd thing to be.”
But, he came in, sat across from me, looked me honestly in the eyes--and I listened to his poetry, shared my scraps of thoughts with him. When we finally parted, it was as co-conspirators, loving the illusion, loving the role of fool, magician, spinner of dreams. That would have been the day to quit.
With the birth of my finches, I knew I could not return, could not face another pile of freshman essays filled with the agony of quickly spun lies, spinning wheels of thoughts. So often these last few months, I saw myself as the keeper of the zoo, the curtailer of free, unstructured thought. Who am I, I questioned myself daily, to tell my students their words failed to communicate their thoughts. As their essays waited on my desk to be graded, to be judged, their words mixed with my own discarded attempts at making life rhyme. After a time, I came to know their struggles too intimately--we came to know each other as fellow fools. We fell in love with each other because of our shared agony.
No, I cannot return, not since my finches gave birth, and my world grew to accommodate the span of their naked wings--tiny strands of flailing flesh fluttering in synchronized time. Parted beaks so small, like a lover’s kiss from a distant world. I thought of you. I thought of what I could say to you that I have not already said with a touch, a smile, a caressing of the eyes.
The other night, I awoke in the middle of a dream, a dream which carried off the last of my illusions. I dreamed of a woman in a red satin dress who said she was your lover as she lifted yards of material and exposed long, graceful legs. I could feel your hands lifting the dress from her body, touching her smooth, young skin, kissing her easy, accepting smile. She revealed her secret to me, the sacrifice she had made for you, as the material floated upwards, wing-like-- she had shaved off all her pubic hair. I cried, astonished at such easy innocence, such honest love, and I knew I could never be that young again--not even for you.
We all love someone else, I wrote in a story once. That story was a moment of honest illusion, a misguided message to a friend many years in the past, when I was too young to understand that love is not a limit, not a fence, but the open space between the clouds, the dreams we forgot, the people we once were.
Sometimes, now, I see you as another story in my life, one I have yet to write; or perhaps you are the poem I wrote at the age of twelve-- a poem that began with the words: "When I was a child..." I remember myself writing that poem, a child writing about being a child, and yet, when I needed to be a child, needed to become innocent and vulnerable in order to get lost in the depths of your smile without fear, I couldn’t bring any of it back.
“You are so serious about life,” you said to me one night as you watched me methodically reading.
“There is so much to learn,” I said, looking up from the pages of words.
“Don’t you realize life is not contained in those damn books,” you said angrily, grabbing the book from my hands, and throwing it against the wall.
Perhaps it was fortunate for us both to meet at a time in my life when the future had too much significance. Everything I did, I explained to you, was a preparation for something else.
“Someday,” I said to you, “my writing will not cause me such pain. Someday I will find the words I need.”
“I can’t believe you,” you said, refusing to understand. “Your eyes tell me your pain comes from deeper places--places you refuse to look at honestly. What is the true origin of your pain?”
At that moment, I quit trying to explain my life to you. It became so easy to lie to you, so easy to lead you to believe in my happiness. I began to wear a smile for you--a smile of lies.
“See how quickly I have recovered,” I said, laughing, hiding the torn up pages of words I had written the day before. “See how easily the words now come,” I said, typing lines and lines of words I did not believe.
If my finches had not given birth, if you had not failed to understand me, I might have gone on in this crazy world, might have worn that smile forever, that bizarre mask of lies. One night I decided I could not lie anymore, could not disguise my pain any longer.
I walked down to the water, waded out to a large rock, and sat on it, looking out over the dark bay reflecting lines of moon. My breath steamed in the cold, night air, and I started to sing: “Merrily, merrily, merrily...life is but a dream." I felt my words echo in the darkness, and then, return in the voice of a stranger. His hand touched my shoulder very gently, and. I quietly motioned for him to
join me on the rock.
“Are you trying to drown yourself,” he asked me in a voice which sounded like the gentle waves brushing against the rock we both shared.
I turned to look at him, and he smiled cautiously, the tenderness in his eyes reflecting moon. “No, I assured him, “I’m just being born.”
He smiled, hugged me softly, and asked if I was lonely. I told him, yes. “We all need love,” he said, looking at me, understanding the origins of my pain.
“Then...make love to me, I said, “because I need to feel.” So we made love, on that rock, in the water, our bodies alive with moonlight. Even now, I think I imagined his gentle spirit, his pale, lean body touching mine. So much of him listened, so much of him understood.
“You gave your pain to a stranger," he said to me as we walked back to the shore, "because it was too awesome a burden to give to a friend."
I touched his hand softly goodbye, and thought of you again, thought of how amazed you would be at my freedom at that moment. I became a bird that night, rising towards the sky.
And, today I resigned, and my finches gave birth, and I called you on the telephone to celebrate birth--mine and the finches. But there was no answer, and I was relieved because the ringing of the telephone echoed the words coming from my heart: we all love someone else. And I knew those words would mean nothing to you, would never explain my freedom. So, I hung up the phone, and yelled the words loudly across the open space where my backyard meets the water in the bay, and I was struck by the peculiarity of that landscape, that Northwest landscape--beaches with no sand, just rocks, just happy survivors. As I looked out over the water, I thought that I, too, am a rock. I, too, sit in the water and let the waves brush against me, feeling their movement, but not their chill.
“We can never blend because our worlds are so different, our internal landscapes so much ourselves,” I explained to you the night you said the connection between us had ceased to grow.
You looked into my eyes, trying to find an answer in their reflected image of you. I looked away, broke the thread between us. You cried softly as I retreated further into my silent world, my inner world of miles and miles of silent desert.
You always brought me flowers, flowers to remind me that I came from a lifeless place--a place where nothing grew easily except the voices of spirits in the night bouncing off the moon, and the distant wailing of coyotes echoing thoughts.
“But, I too had flowers,” I said to you the day you gave me the apple blossoms, “only I had to crawl on my hands and knees to see them.“
I tried to explain to you how most were not to be picked as they were protected by thorny, impenetrable barriers. In my world, in that silent desert filled with the music of mirages, things remain forever in their place.
In your world, I wanted to say to you, things are too easy; everywhere you sit, your senses are overwhelmed by color, by beauty, by the ease of reaching out and plucking a flower with no thorns. I wanted to give you roses filled with thorns so you could understand, but the rose bush outside my door had not yet bloomed.
“Be careful,” you said to me the night you watched me rewrite a line of poetry over and over again. “This world will steal your soul because of its obsession with words, with meaning, with the need to define life too clearly.”
"But, I love teaching,” I said to you, knowing how much your own students loved you.
“I teach magic,” you answered and smiled, waiting for me to compare my rigid world with yours.
I looked away from you, annoyed that once again, you had pulled me towards you with your eyes.
“I used to be like you,” you continued. “But one day I quit. An institution is no place to practice art. One day you will understand.”
I listened to your words quietly, trying to understand and yet remembering the student who came to my office a few days before with a beautiful paper which had no conclusion--at least, not in the Standard English sense of the word. He had ended his essay with a riddle: “What did they see?”
The words stood out, blatantly, dreadfully wrong--yet so right. “This is not a conclusion,” I said in my best teacher voice, my voice of respectability. Please, I thought to myself, let him believe I know what I’m talking about. “You must tell the reader what he sees.”
“But, why?” he asked me. “Don’t they have eyes of their own?”
This student, who was from a tiny island in the South Pacific, told me his language had no adjectives. “When we say flower, all the flowers of the world are within our hands, not just the red and yellow ones.”
He was my first moment of rebellion. “You’re right, of course, I said to him. “Leave the ending as it is...just don’t tell anyone." I gave him an "A" simply because he came from a place with no adjectives.
“And, what will you do?” you asked me that last day, that day I told you I wanted to quit teaching, that day I imagined what it would be like to bask in a goal-less state of mind.
I laughed and said: “I’m going to visit my friend in Hawaii who wanted to be a Philosopher, but ended up teaching Remedial Religion instead. I’m going to live on a goat farm in Northern Arizona, and learn about living through my body instead of my mind. I’m going to love a beautiful man for no reason other than his beauty. I’m going to India to search for my friend who disappeared three years ago looking for enlightenment. I’m going to make complex sculptures out of clay which will have no meaning. I’m going to eat pounds and pounds of fresh salmon. I’m going to write another novel. I’m going to write poetry again. I’m going to complete the circle, make it come back around to where it all began. I'm going to dance, and love, and feel, and walk upside down, inside out. I'm going to touch everyone I know, and everyone I have yet to know. I’m going to love my illusions, my mind, my life, my madness--I’m going to do anything but think. I’m going to leave the business of making sense out of nonsense to the Philosophers, and I’m going to dwell in the beauty of insignificance.”
Very quietly, you got up from the couch we had been sharing, kissed me lightly on the forehead, and walked out my door. I wanted you to look back, wanted you to see my tears--the tears I could finally cry--but it was too late. Instead, I sat alone on my couch, my hand over the warm spot where your body had rested, feeling it grow colder and colder, like a corpse, like a dying storm. I watched the sun set over the bay through the window, through the branches of the bare apple tree. As the room grew dark, the silence grew louder, and all my memories became one feeling. I began to mourn the death of apple blossoms, the passing of time, the futility of words explaining feelings.
“We are parting from each other with a sense of relief, a sense of having escaped from each other,” you said to me over dinner.
“But, such feelings are meant for those unable to love, those unable to look into the eyes of others and see themselves,” I answered, trying to make you understand. “Don’t you see that in this running from each other is the illusion of freedom,” I continued, reaching for your hand, and finding it cool to the touch, cool as indifference. I let you go. In that moment, I let you go in order to free myself.
And today my finches gave birth. Their tiny, trembling chorus fills my room, and from their vulnerability, their need to be fed, I find my own strength. I feel my own frail wings grow strong, feel my heart fill with new freedom. I sing softly to myself: “Merrily, merrily, merrily...life is but a dream.”
Earth Day is coming. Will you be ready? Ursine Logic