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.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

May 23, 1946 -- Thoughts on a 60th birthday 

I suppose I should have something profound to offer on this day. After all, it is a significant milestone, the kind where one expects deep thoughts, perhaps pearls of insight. I doubt very much that I am capable of either. But I feel as if I should write something. What I will offer is not intended as anymore than an expression of what I feel now, as I begin yet another year.

I have spent much time in reflection during the past year. Oft I have shared parts of that in the blogosphere. This undoubtedly has been an example of self-indulgence, perhaps even of solipcism (except that I do accept the existence of a world independent of my own existence). And perhaps in the process of living a year more closely examined as it occurred than were most of its predecessors, I have found the rough edges somewhat smoothed, and my intense reactions assuaged by the recognition that I am aging, and while I may care passionately I can no longer pour endless amounts of energy into every perceived crisis.

The last sentence of the preceding paragraph might lead the reader to believe that I am letting go, in someway surrendering, as if my efforts no longer could make a difference. Were that the case I would not teach school. The act of showing up in my classroom and engaging with my students is my commitment to a future that I may not live to see, but to which I still bear a responsibility. My attention to the present presumes a future, one for which I will continue to hold the most outrageous of hopes. My task as a teacher is to expand the horizons and possibilities of the students who pass through my care. That is my commitment to the future.

I have now lived three score years. As I look back on my life I could regret much. The opportunities I have forsaken are sufficient to condemn me in my own eyes. The unkindnesses for which I bear responsibility can never be made right, at least not by me. I acknowledge that I am fully human, with all the selfishness, incompleteness, egoism, insecurity and arrogance that are a part of the human condition. And yet that is such an incomplete picture of any life.

There are also moments of generosity, of self-sacrifice, of great kindness, of altruism without concern for self. But that is also an incomplete picture of any life, or at least of the life of any human I have known, although I would acknowledge having encountered it in four-footed creatures.

I have neither the grandeur of my wildest dreams nor the depravity of my deepest depression. I contain within myself both good and not so good.

As I write this many thoughts crowd into mind, tales of wisdom and insight that have become a continual part of my life, lines of poetry that inspire me, sounds of music that sustain me. I can recreate the smell of an early summer rainfall, that incredible fresh scent that reminds me of the possibilities of life. My hand remembers the feel of a moist nose of a dog wanting attention, and my face feels her tongue licking away my tears when I was sorrowful.

There are different and at times conflicting motivations to my writing, as there are to all my actions. Sometimes I crave recognition and acknowledgment. At other moments I am bursting with what I perhaps foolishly think is the insight that will make a difference to others. Then there are the times that until I write, I do not fully know what I think or feel. When someone responds to something I write in any forum, in that response I am connected in a way I was not before. It gives me the possibility of experiencing life through the words and reactions of another, and I am not so isolated. And perhaps the words I write - or speak - can be beneficial, although I am also aware that I have my mother’s gift for the cutting or demeaning remark, a gift that I use far too often, especially as a means of hiding from others.

I have always wanted my life to make a difference. But I could never really define what that meant. When I was young I would construct imaginery scenarios in which I was important, but that was unsatisfying. Once I started down that path I found myself moving further and further from reality. Then in the depth of my depression I would be able to see only the hurt I caused others. I would wonder why anyone would want to have anything to do with me. Eventually I came to recognize that these were two equally distorted images, both full of arrogance and self-centeredness.

The hard part has been allowing myself to be human, imperfect in many ways. I am still learning how.

Most of you who encounter these words will do so on a blog that is political in purpose. And you may wonder why I post something like this there. Because, dear reader, I am making a very political statement. It is spiritual as well, that is, it touches the deepest part of my being. It is also intellectual, emotional, it is all aspects of my being.

Because as I have reached this my 60th birthday I have learned one thing: I cannot compartmentalize, I cannot fragment myself into the Ken who is a teacher and the Ken who is a spouse and the Ken who loves music and the Ken who is concerned about civility in our public discourse and the Ken who is passionate about the environment and all the other Kens that are part of me and all of me.

I also know now something that I could not grasp until recently. My life has been incredibly rich. I have been blessed with so much, because I have encountered so many different people who have expanded my vision, my experience. I have come to realize that every person I encounter can teach me something, if only I am open to the possibility. And that has enabled me finally to realize that I potentially serve the same purpose for them, not because I am wise or especially gifted, but because I am -- like each of them is -- absolutely unique.

I will probably never achieve my highest aspiration for myself, which is to be completely loving and open and vulnerable. But even as time and again I find myself wanting, I do not despair.

I have referred before to my favorite tale from the Desert Fathers, the early generation of Christian monks in Egypt and Nitrea. One young novice asked his master, “Abba, what do we do here in the desert?” and his master responded “We fall, we pick ourselves up, we fall, we pick ourselves up, we fall, we pick ourselves up.”

I do not have perfect knowledge and probably never will. I will say and do things that are destructive to me and those I love, that will hurt others. Sometimes I will unfortunately do so with intent, far more often I will do so out of thoughtlessness or lack of concern or ignorance. But I recognize that often I say or do things which are of no great import to me but which are received as great kindness and consideration by others. I will accept responsibility for the hurt -- that is actually fairly easy at this stage of my life. I am learning, slowly, to accept the gratitude offered even when I do not perceive that I did anything to warrant it. It is part of the human connection, it is something that comes with being open.

And most of all I am beginning to learn about letting go of my hurt, even if it was caused by the deliberate action of another. I try to reserve my outrage for when I encounter deliberate hurt aimed at another.

As I write this, the most recent of our five rescued cats is seeking my attention. He is the least integrated with the other four, and I probably have not been as generous with my attention to him. But, as is often the case with my four-footed acquaintances, he does not have a mean bone. He simply wants to delight in life. And that is something I can learn from him. Life is full of delights. Even in our worst moments there are precious jewels. Perhaps it is a smile from someone we have never met and may never see again. Or it is the sound of a mockingbird in the evening.

When I was born Truman was President, and Herbert Hoover was still alive. My mother’s paternal grandmother, who was born while Lincoln was President, was a part of my first few years, albeit mainly at Passover seders. I do not know who will be president when I die. I do not know how much longer I will live. I have no intimations of death. I never expected to see my 30th birthday. My mother died before she was 50, my father lived until his 80’s, his older brother just passed in his late 90’s. It doesn’t matter. I no longer worry about what I may have done or not done in the past, except when I encounter someone I realize I may have hurt and I apologize. I think about the future, both near term and even perhaps 2 decades out, but I do not obsess about it.

Nor do I obsess about the present, even as I try to enjoy it. Sometimes the best way is what I was just doing. I stopped and responded to the cat, forgetting momentarily what I was doing, or what I might write next.

I said that this was a political statement. How I live what is left of my life is a political statement. That I choose to write about things which concern me is a political statement, nay, it is a political action. It is also a moral act, a spiritual act, an emotional commitment, an intellectual exercise. When I write about music, or poetry, or my cats, it is political, moral, spiritual, emotional and intellectual. All is part of my humanity.

There are a few consistent themes in my life. I have always wanted to be loved, but was afraid of it, of opening myself up to accepting love. Leaves on the Current has slowly convinced me that I do not have to justify myself or prove myself in order to have others love me. That is enabling me to understand what it means to love others. I will not be an effective teacher unless I am willing to love all of my students. That is an ongoing process. I have wanted my life to have meaning, and I am beginning to learn that every life has meaning, regardless of the external attention and recognition that it garners. I have sought to find meaning in part by wandering through different religious traditions. I find much of value in many sources, and it has brought me to the point where the idea of walking joyfully across the earth answering fhat of God in each person I encounter seems about right. I am still learning how to give full attention to others, but in their generosity most have been patient with my impatience, and thus have helped me immensely.

I will continue to offer what words and insights I think I may have, not because I necessarily believe that I have anything near a complete understanding, but because in our joint incompleteness we may together approach wholeness of vision and understanding.

I was born May 23, 1946, in New York City. It is now May 23, 2006 in Arlington, Virginia. Sixty years ago my life was full of possibilities. What I realize now is that it still is. When I was younger I saw the possibilities only in terms of my own earthly life. Now I know that my life is part of something much broader. The possibilities open to me were there because of those who went before me, related by blood or not. It was with those whose lives overlapped mine before they departed from life, and those whose lives overlapped theirs but not mine. My life contributes in some way to the possibilities in the lives of others. Clearly that is true with those I encounter in my role as teacher. But as my life has been enriched by those whose names I never knew, what I do offers opportunity to those I will never meet.

I am sixty. The life in front of me is full of possibilities, farther than my mind can imagine.

I am lucky. I am human. So are we all.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
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