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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, March 10, 2007
I STROKED my mother's short, soft hair for many minutes. Her eyes were closed. I had not seen this much peace in her still-beautiful, velvet face for many years. She sat motionless on her nursing home bed, erect as a Buddha. A fresh spring breeze whispered through the window.
I thought to myself, my mother's final journey has begun.
The words are not mine. I do not write that well, and my own mother passed years ago. They are from a remarkable piece in today's Boston Globe entitled Seizing life's precious journeys. The author is Derrick Jackson, and you MUST go read the piece. Now. Before you continue reading this diary. If necessary, instead of continuing to read this diary. Only then will it be worthwhile to continue reading what little I have to offer.
If you have followed instructions, you will realize that the title of this diary is the final line of Jackon's column, a column that is both personal and universal. It discuss a universal principle of making the world better through the particular and personal experience of one man. It shows how he attempts to pass on the good that was given him. He shares his connections, not only with his mother, but with the young man who was his "little brother" and that young man's continuation of the process in himself now serving as a big brother. He talks about others. And at lest as I read, it connected with my life and the lives of others I knew.
My wife has a dear friend from her days at Oxford, another American, who is now very successful in her own creative field. Her father was a very successful businessman who late in life decided to start honoring creativity. He was in many ways a difficult man, but he was also a generous and caring man. He was able to see creativity in unusual ways, and was also able to convince others of his vision. Both my wife and I worked with him some on this project, and as a result got to know him far better in his later years. We were honored guests as his collaborators the Smithsonian sponsored an annual award ceremony, with conversations with the principal recipient of the honors he bestowed. In the few years until now we were able to participate in honoring people like Yo-Yo Ma and Sandra Day O'Connor, as well as acknowledge creativity of young people still in high school.
He passed earlier this week. He knew his end was near, and went home. His children and grandchildren were able to gather around him, to reminisce, to thank one another for a common journey. This afternoon we will go to his apartment to be with the extended family. Perhaps that is one reason why Jackson's column spoke to me.
But I also thought of how others have enabled me with gifts of love and caring they have given me. I think of my parents sacrificing things they would have enjoyed to enable my sister and me to explore our musical gifts, including my mother getting up early on a Saturday morning to drive us to our lessons in New York City. Or of teachers, counselors at National Music Camp, professors, who would take the time to offer support. I know that I was in many ways a difficult child, and an impossible adolescent. Perhaps it is one reason I feel a responsibility to offer something to the adolescents I teach - because at troubled times in my own life there were those who were there to support me.
Jackson points out that we can learn from those younger than us. Certainly as a teacher I encounter this regularly. I will in a bit more than two months reach my 61st birthday, I devour books and information, and yet the most important lessons I encounter are those offered me by those 13-18 year olds in my care. Perhaps it is a willingness to take on formidable academic loads because they can. Or it may be the caring to help a classmate who is struggling because many of my students reject the idea of competing against one another in a way that leaves some behind.
But all of what I have just written still misses what I drew from the Jackson piece. We may feel a responsibility to give back, but that is not the challenge Jackson offers us. The key is not responsibility, or paying back, because at some point we might feel as if we had fulfilled such task.
The key is love.
Jackson frames what he offers in terms of the love he received, and the love we should be passing on. Love is, as one can read, something that does not diminish when it is given out, but can actually increase.
And in a world full of turmoil, unhappiness, fear, and anger, what else can help break through those barriers to human connection than love?
If I look at all that I encounter each day, whether in person or through my reading, I would despair. It would be like when I first walked into the Strand Bookstore on 4th Avenue in NY City in 1963. There were so many books. I could never hope to read them all. And I began to weep.
There are so many people. There is so much need. How can I hope to make a difference? How can I ever hope to offer love that will matter?
And yet the answer is simple. If I have allowed love to lift me up, whether from my parents or those not related by blood, I have already seen how. We may start with those close to us, related by blood or marriage, or with whom we have natural affiliation. That may remind us of the power that is involved.
And then? Perhaps it will be small gestures of those we encounter in our daily endeavors. We might not call it love, we might call it caring, or simple courtesy. But it initiates a process in us, one that opens us to possibilities otherwise as closed as the walls around hearts, those of us and others, because of turmoil, unhappiness, fear and anger. And it is the open heart that can break down those walls in others.
It is an open heart that may suffer serious insult, cause us pain, when our love is not accepted. But our task is to offer, and what we offer is a gift. When we give it away, if we attempt to control how the other uses it we are still claiming ownership, we are still attempting to control, and that is not loving, at least, I do not think so.
For me, love is not exclusive or closed. To experience the connection of love is to be a flower that opens to the sun, or the once-clenched fist whose fingers loosen and can how intertwine with those of another, or stroke the neck of a cat, or reach down and pick up something dropped by a person with Parkinson's, or simply gently touch another person.
Jackson challenges us to love others more. That can be read in different ways. Perhaps we can understand it as "more than we do now." Perhaps we pick one occasion, one person, to whom we will find a way of loving more than we do know. And if we persist we realize that rather than draining us it empowers us: having been able to remove our own barriers to love towards one person we discover it is easier to do so with another.
But this is particular. It is not that we love people. It is that we love persons - each in her absolutely uniqueness. It is not that we are out to "fix" his flaws (for certainly we have equally many of our own that need addressing). It is that we are therre, caring, lifting up, sustaining. Each small effort, each additional outreach, each continued relationship, is our contribution ot lessening the turmoil, unhappiness, fear, and anger that are so destructive in the world in which we live.
I have offer a few of my own not very well shaped thoughts. Enough of that. Let me close as Jackson closed. If you have followed directions, you will be reading these words not for the first time. If you have not followed directions, perhaps the conclusion of the piece may encourage you to go and read all of his words. Either way, Jackson speaks with far more power than can I:
One is never too young to show others the way. At our Boy Scout and Venture Crew meeting this week in Cambridge, three of the first girls ever sponsored by our Boston council for an 11-day wilderness trek at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico told the newer scouts they needed to take that journey in 2008. One Philmont girl, Ryan, who fought past altitude sickness to climb an 11,000-foot peak last year, said, "It was hard, we got sick, but we had so much fun and learned we could do anything."
A week from today, a great journey will begin. My wife, Michelle Holmes, will attempt to hike the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. In a letter to her family and friends, she wrote, "I view it as an amazing adventure in the natural world and a spiritual pilgrimage echoing the Underground Railroad to freedom."
Michelle can talk about mere echoes of the Underground Railroad because people like my mother, sitting in her Buddha state, completed their journey. For her children, she bridged the gap between segregated Mississippi and American opportunity. It is now our turn to show others how we love them more.
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