Today I got home from school, napped, and consumed a load of carbs- my usual Wednesday afternoon dwindle to a near halt. When I woke up, work was still washing up on the shores of my mind like a stupid duck-shaped paddle boat that someone forgot to tie to the dock. So I planned some objectives and KUD’s for the week. After stashing that acronym salad in my google drive, I tucked my book under my arm and grabbed a violet striped pool towel. Time to immerse.
The pool was Disney-blue, smelling strongly of chlorine and exploding with puberty in the form of two boys and two girls who were engaged in a hormone-fueled battle. The boys had makeshift water guns of plastic tubing that they had dubbed “sausages.” They were using them (inventively) to spray the girls with water in the kind of blatant innuendo that thrills the adolescent male psyche and makes everyone else reconsider the sexual philosophies of the Puritans. In the process, my book got fairly wet.
It is The Wave by Susan Casey. I was transitioning from the chapter on a wave-physics conference to one about wealthy superstar surfers eating a breakfast of ahi, fruit and Hawaiian coffee in a shack off of Pe’ahi. I had been within twenty miles of the place, oh, three or for years ago on vacation. Reading about a Hawaiian morning is always unbearable if you are not there, but Golden was doing its best to make up for it by dropping the sun dramatically behind its bluffs in a haze of white-gold that set the pool water and the maple leaves aglitter.
Eventually, I put the book down and spent some time pondering the past and the future. The other day at the start of our staff meeting in the library, a realization hit me like a collapsing bookshelf. The librarian of my consciousness was crushed beneath it for a moment, and I was left gazing blankly at the ceiling until Brady Yarletts, our very bright-eyed math teacher, asked me what I was staring at.
“I’ve just realized,” I explained, “that my entire job, all day, is to think about what is happening and connect it to the past. I talk about dead people all day. You work with stuff that IS, or will be, The things I talk about are over.”
His eyes widened boyishly, “That’s true. I never thought about that. Huh. Weird.”
I went on, warming to the topic, “It’s like I am some dreadful Epimethean character in a Greek tragedy.”
It is true. Lately I have been struck by how little regard I give the present world. It is as though everything I see has its history or legacy drifting behind it like an old cloak. My mind runs on something like this:
“Controversy over reproductive rights, you say? Did you know that one of the most effective contraceptive techniques in the classical world was the consumption of silphium seeds, which came from a species of Giant Fennel that grew exclusively in an ecological niche near the North African city of Cyrene? Indeed, the plant was such a success that, after it was discovered by Roman dominas and prostitutes, it was harvested to extinction within decades. It was also a perfect heart shape, which is possibly where our current symbol comes from!”
…. and the like.
“I am already like some crotchety old scholar whose eyes are so fogged with lore that he can’t see out the window,” I mumbled to Yarletts as the meeting got underway, “I am going to be unbearable when I am old.”
He laughed good-naturedly and turned his present, thoughtful mind to his weekend plans, which we discussed in whispers while I formed a resolution. I think it will be critical to keep throughout my years as a history teacher:
The past, in a sense, is fake. It is gone, and all we can see are the affects it has on the present. It is much like a wave, really- the only reason we see “a wave” is because we see the water low at one moment, high the next, and our brain connects those visions into the idea of a trough and a crest. But zen (my ultimate authority on most matters, for some reason) would suggest that life is found in each moment, that the experience of a wave is wherever you are in relation to where it is now.
I think surfers would agree. Be. Don’t always swim at the crest of a bunch of mental stories, no matter how well-researched. Try to live on the threshold of the real, ever-present. Enjoy the story of history, and give it its place and time. But “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves” (Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”) without the trappings of knowledge weighing down every insight. Learning must be connected to life, but there is a point where it becomes such a filter for experience that we cease to breathe here and now.
At least, that’s how I feel today.
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