from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Es Ist Genug 

It is Saturday morning. For many today is a day of rushing around to prepare for the celebration of Easter. My small Quaker meeting will have such a celebration tomorrow, but as my wife will celebrate Pascha (Eastern Orthodox Easter) next week I will postpone to participate with her. Thus I will not today meditate or write about the season, or at least, not this season.

I approach the end of my 60th year, with the marking of that occasion in 38 days. Today, as I have done several times since this year began last May, I will meditate and write about life in general. Today’s offering will be personal, but it will also be political. It may have “spiritual” elements that justify its inclusion at places with that focus, and as education is so much of a part of my life, it can be considered an educational diary as well.

I invite your continued reading, and your use of what I post to take some time to offer relevant reflections from your own life.

Tomorrow I will post a very different kind of diary, inspired by and drawn from a book whose main title is A War Against Truth by the Canadian journalist Paul William Roberts. When I finished it last night I was silent and still for several minutes, and then walked slowly through the parking lot to my car to return home. I wa shattered by what I had read, and yet I did not despair. I recount this experience because it is relevant to what I wish to write today, for we can be equally shattered about what we have, or have not, accomplished in our lives.

During this year I periodically have stopped and reflected not only on the current activities of my life, but on how I arrived at the point where I find myself willing to reflect. As soon as I do I am immediately reminded of of part of one of my favorite poems, “Little Gidding” by Thomas Stearns Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.

And yet on each occasion I have to ask myself if in fact I really know where I am, or how I have gotten there. Certainly my knowledge is still “through a glass darkly”, at best known in part, not completely.

I am in some ways a perfectionist, which far too often I have used as an excuse not to do things -- if I could not do them perfectly, why attempt that at which I knew I would “fail”??? I know, as we all do, the maxim of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. BUt what is good? Certainly those words when encountered while reading the story of the Passion of jesus of Nazareth can shock us with the awareness that we cannot know for certainty if any action we assay will in its effects be perceived later or by others as good. As a teacher I can look back on the events of a day and for all that I can recount with either justifiable pride or satisfaction I can see moments where I know I could have done things more effectively, or where I failed to properly react to something that came across my consciousness but to which I did not react at the time.

Es ist genug.. My German was never very good, but the words mean “it is enough.” Even writing them fills my mind with music, and with sorrow turned into something beautiful. There was a woman named Alma. Her father was a painter, another painter Gustav Klimt gave her her first kiss, composer Alexander Zemlinsky taught her composition and was her first lover, and at 22 she dumped him for Gustav Mahler, her first husband, then in his forties. Her other husbands including the great architect Walter Gropius and the writer Franz Werfel. By Gropius she had a daughter, Manon, born in 1916 who developed polio at 17, ending her dreams of being an actress, and who died suddenly in 1935. She had been described by Elias Canetti, later to win the Nobel Prize in literature, as “an angelic gazelle from heaven.” And her death inspired one of the great and yet not well-known musical works of the 20th century, the violin concerto of Alban Berg, dedicated to “the memory of an angel.” He set aside his second opera, Lulu, to work on this piece, and as a result the opera was unfinished at his death in december of 1935. The final movement begins with an ascending pattern of 12 notes, hence being written in the form of a tone row, the serialism technique associated with Berg’s teacher Arnold Schoenberg, with Berg himself and with Anton Webern. The final four notes of that row are both an ascending whole note scale, and the lasst four notes are also the beginning of the chorale prelude Es is genug. Berg also quotes J. S. Bach’s harmonization of the chorale.

Part of the privilege attained by reaching the age I now approach is that we are allowed to admit that we will never achieve all we might have once dreamed. By now childhood dreams of playing in the major leagues are long since abandoned, as are those of performing either the Tschaikovsky first or Brahms second piano concerti with the new York Philharmonic. It took many more years before the fantasy of becoming America’s greatest president were recognize as that - fantasy that was never really part of my future. And yet - each of these imaginations remains in a way an essential part of my life. I was never a greatly gifted athlete, although when I returned to college from the Marines I was a good enough goalie that had I stay around then could well have made at least all-conference and our hall of fame coach Jimmy Mills told me years later that I might have had a shot at all-American (and ironically years later someone with my name made the all-American squad as a goalie at George Mason - I know this because I used to regularly get phone calls from adult teams looking for him but finding me instead). My love of using my body in a physical way has been transformed into other things - when I cook I do not use a food processor because I need to be in physical contact with what I am doing. And the appreciation of the skill and coordination involved in athletics has lead to my being more of a teacher than a coach with my soccer players, and to a deep appreciation of the art from known as dance in its many manifestations. Given that my spouse, Leaves on the Current, was a dancer and is intimately involved with dance in her professional life, it has been a meaningful connection. Es ist genug..

I still have a piano, in fact one can argue that I have two. One is the baby grand with which I grew up, rescued from Florida when I closed out my father’s apartment after putting him into the home in which he died several years later. Upstairs I have an electronic keyboard to which I can listen with earphones if I am inclined to play while jy wife is still asleep. I will still on occasion attempt pieces once well known, up to and including the first movement of the Tschaikovsky, although I am far more likely to concentrate on Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and Schubert. I can be haunted but also pleased by the memory of a piano teacher Jimmy Bloch who once told me that within the limits of my technique I played Bach as well as anyone he had heard. At Julliard he was known as the man with the golden ears. I have never been paid a higher compliment by someone who when I knew him was an adult.

My keyboarding is a physical activity. it is also meditative, and spiritual. My love of music continues unabated,and I have during my life sung (as i will the Verdi Requiem on Friday, in memory of the long-time choral director at Haverford College, Bill Reese, who died recently at age 95), conducting, coaching musicals, and simply listening. Could I have been a performer? Does it matter? Music has always been an essential part of my life. Even were I now to experience a loss of hearing such as that undergone by Beethoven, I can read a score and hear the music in my mind. I can play a non-sounding keyboard and know when the notes are right and when they are creating something of beauty. Es ist genug.

I will never run for political office. I have agreed to serve in a minor capacity in my community association. Over the years I have participated in political activities including but not limited to presidential campaigns. I have learned much about politics, and even more about people. As my life ha progressed I have developed sufficient skill - in writing and in speaking - that I have been able to have some small influence on the development of policy in areas that concern me. In my local community - a county with almost 200,000 people, there have been times when I personally knew every elected public official -- and they knew, and largely respected me. As my life has become more focused on education I am not as in touch with my local politics. But I have gotten to know statewide candidates, successful as well as those whose attempts fell short. And my passion for education has in part inspired me to develop a skill I did not have when I was younger, that of writing. Through that I have become part of the electronic community where you are encountering these words. I have developed relationships with people who do hold and/or seek political office, and am able to function as the irritating grain of sand that at least has the potential to provoke the development of a pearl of policy or of insight. It may be a minor pearl, not one of great price, but it is an extension into realms which as an adolescent I could not have imagined. Es ist genug.

I am now a teacher. I flirted with that role off and on during my life. I have taught music while myself still an adolescent. I first coached when I was 11, and we needed the kids down the block who were 8 and 9 to have enough for our games. In many of the varied jobs I have held during the more than 40 years since I first dropped out of college at 19 I have served as a mentor, teacher, trainer or coach to others. In the process I have learned whatever domain in which I found myself far better for having to explain it to others. The powers of observation, of expression, and most of all of communicating effectively with others (for I am shy and not as my wife will inform you particularly gifted with social skills) have all become part of what helps make me an effective teacher. I have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. And all of my fantasies as a child in some way were geared towards this - that my life in some way mattered, made a difference. I am not always the best teacher I could be, because I am still a shattered and incomplete human being. But when I see glimmers of understanding in the eyes, hear the development of thoughts in the spoken words, or read the ever improving expressions in the writing of my students, I can have some satisfaction that my life does matter. Es ist genug.

And when a student comes back and thanks me, whether at the end of the year, or several years later, whether by visit or by email or by instant messenger, or even - as happens from time to time - by nominating me for an award as the teacher who most positively affected their lives and their learning, it is more than enough. It exceeds even the compliment paid me by Jimmy Bloch about my playing Bach.

I approach 60. I am still learning that I do not have to be perfect. Of greater importance, I am learning that even as I challenge my students to develop, to improve, I must also allow them to fail, so that they can learn, so that they will be willing to try something that they do not know if they can do perfectly. As I learn to escape from the possibly destructiveness of my own perfectionism, I am also learning to empower my students so that they are not dissuaded from taking risks.

And in my approaching dotage, I am beginning to learn to extend the same generosity of spirit to those who seek to serves as our leaders. They will make mistakes. If they are willing to acknowledge that they are not perfect, to listen to the voices of those they seek to lead, then I am willing to grant to them the flexibility they need if they are to succeed ina any fashion. They will have to make compromises, this I know, for I have had to make compromises in my own life, and still do, and have learned to allow myself to acknowledge that far too often the perfect is the enemy of the good, I desire to see far more goodness in the world.

What is good? I cannot say that I can define it. I know that if more people are inspired to attempt more, to be willing to risk failure, it is good. I know that when people become willing to forgive less than perfection even as they seek to improve, whether that imperfection is in themselves or in others, it is good.

Not to try because one cannot achieve perfection is to surrender. It is to despair that one’s efforts have no meaning, that one’s life has no purpose. That is not good. Every life has meaning, every life has purpose, and for each of us we need to remember that about ourselves, and about each other life with which we interact, whether we know the persons directly or can only intimate the possible connection.

A a child I wanted to make a difference. As I approach 60, and reexamine the patterns of my life, I could find many more failures than successes. Baseball is a useful metaphor. Only a very few have ever achieved four hits in ten at bats, the vast majority succeeding at a rate of less than 3 in 10. But each plate appearance is another chance to make a difference. Perhaps the years have worn me down if I am willing to settle for less than perfection. I prefer to think that they have inspired me to be far more optimistic, to be willing to go on knowing that I can no longer achieve the vastness of my wildest childhood imaginations. I know that I can still make a difference, often a difference whose impact will not be fully felt until my life has long since ended. That may make me like the man who in the twilight of his life plants olive trees whose fruit he will never experience,but whose response when challenged is that the fruit is for his grandchildren. Es ist genug..

We do not have biological children. We have nieces and nephews. But we have many progeny. We both write, and our expressions are one form of progeny. As a teacher I have the opportunity to help shape the future through the many lives with which I interact. Es ist genug.

Or, since this is Passover season, let me use the Hebrew. In the seder we recount the many things God did for us, and we do not have to ask for more, because it was enough -- dayenu. If we do not need to demand more from God, if we can accept with generosity of spirit what he has done for us, then we cannot demand more of ourselves. We need to be grateful for what we have done.

And as I come to the end of this meditation, which will probably not be read by that many, it the breadth of the reading audience does not matter. I have written it, and I have read it. I know that some will encounter it, and perhaps for one or two it will make a difference. And I return to Eliot, and repeat the sentence with which I in part began this piece:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.

I hope that as I am learning the wisdom of this insight, that I have helped others give themselves the permission to experience and appreciate their own humanity in all its imperfections. As I look back on my own life, I cannot fully agree with Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien.” There are things I do regret. But there is so much to cherish.

Dayenu. Es Ist genug.

Have a day filled with joy.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.
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