It’s been a while since I’ve scribed anything of any sort over the last god-knows-how-long. I wonder sometimes if I’m experiencing the addictive satiation of social media that everyone with a smartphone seems to be so haply skewered by, whether it’s reducing my cognitive and spiritual capacity. As of late, I feel often unfocused, tired, and unwilling to engage in much beyond the reading of newsfeeds, science and education articles, because there’s always something critically important just beyond the next scroll downward.
Perhaps I’m simply getting older. It’s harder to get myself out the door for a run (it is “winter,” if you can call what NYC has been experiencing thus far as such, but still). It is harder to feel compelled to respond to emails from anyone asking for my time and energy for things that don’t relate to what I need to get done tomorrow. Or maybe I’m just simply depressed.
Full disclosure: last month I discovered myself standing in the middle of my living room weeping, not entirely certain why. When I examined the blubbering’s antecedent, I had just gotten off the phone to my parents. So I guess I realized just how much I miss my family, way out there on the West Coast. I’m not a sentimental sort of person, so this was surprising to me, this missing of family.
And maybe I just felt overwhelmed and stressed at work, because Novembers in any school year are always hard.
Or maybe I was just feeling old. I’m nearing what statistically speaking could be determined as the median of my life’s parabola.
Perhaps it was also that I realized, 8 years into living in NYC, that I’m lonely. I know people, but I don’t know people. Hell, I don’t know myself anymore.
All of those things.
So I’m growing a beard. The un-manicured kind. It now feels like a ginger mat of fur splayed out my chin, which is fun to rub.
I furthermore obtained a set of tabla drums, and assuming I can force myself to haul them downtown on a Thursday night, I’ll begin taking lessons. I’ve decided that my brain has been getting too set into narrow ways, and I need to wire some new connections.
Teaching is certainly a rewarding profession, but I’m missing having any sense of self or capacity that extends beyond the work that I do. Which brings me back to this.
The toughest damn thing in the world.
If it was easy, I would have written that book I was supposed to write 4 years ago already. Writing a blog post that nobody ever reads is hard enough as it is.
I know enough not to make myself any promises, but it’s clear that when I fail to write regularly, I lose an essential connection to myself. It is through this mundane connection that I no longer feel alone.
Here’s to continued future scribblings of the soul.
It’s one of those nights in NYC when it’s too hot to sleep. It’s hard to even breathe. So in the night, I sit down here at my kitchen table to write. The way I used to, when my horizon was so wide open I was drowning in loneliness.
Which is apropos, because today I felt an old lonely feeling, the sense of an inability to relate to people in a way that seems to come naturally to others. Since I’ve been a child, there’s been something withheld about me, something cynical and fearful, a spiteful, sensitive creature that spits at the world.
This is who I am. An imperfect, arrogant, overly self-aware asshole who wants to be loved.
I remember the first time my father took me to a baseball game, and as the people around me cheered and followed crowd protocols and shouted good naturedly at players, I sat, withdrawn, and did not understand. A burly man bantered with my father and informed him that his son was a Vulcan. Though he meant it in friendly jest, it felt to my overly sensitive self like an attack. Something was wrong with me. I seemed unable to exhibit some innate male marker.
Sometimes I wonder if I have some mild inability to comprehend certain social cues, an inkling of autism. Or perhaps some deficiency of testosterone or some other naturally occurring trait that people sniff off each other like dogs determining one another’s character by sniffing each other’s butts.
I’ve never been interested in the things that seem to be normal things to be interested in. My attention is often elsewhere.
As an adult, this has become a strength in my work, in that I’ve discovered that I have an ability to lose myself in an isolated drive to get things done.
But there are some times, like today, when I am reminded of my deficiency. Why can’t I just relax, say an offhand remark that will make a stranger laugh, remove this skein of brittle self-awareness that inhibits me from relating naturally to others?
This is my curse, and perhaps it is my blessing–the fundamental flaw that defines my character. I will never be that burly man at ease with his place in the world, savoring a baseball game in a stadium. I am condemned to be forever hungry, nipping at the heels of an internal wilderness, sitting silently in a stew of conflicting emotions, conveying little, waiting for some distant moment when I can curl my understanding into a word on a page in a stranger’s heart.
In order to write something, anything, my mind strives for some overarching purpose. But what is the overarching purpose of my life? Could this be defined? And if it could be defined, would it be worth writing?
It is better, perhaps, for me to recognize that writing itself, like life itself, is purpose enough, worth enough, to enact for it’s own sake – for my own sake – here within this very moment of being. I can write, so I will. I am alive, so I must live.
Writing is an act of transcribing waves of thought into the structured symbols our ancestors developed to amplify their minds. Through this amplification, they – and all their subsequent generations to the point of me at this point of now – enabled this text that sits directly before you on your phone or your tablet or your laptop or your desktop monitor, ferrying this current of my thought to you.
There are so many ways to amplify our minds in this day and age – due only to become ever more exponentially electrified – that it bears questioning as to what occurs when there is much amplification of little mind? Springing from that visualization (big waves circling outwards from a small pebble) comes the possible insight that the eventual zenith of all of this streamlined jetsam and flotsam is no mind. No mind as the end game of much effort applied towards mind amplification. This sounds koan enough that there must be some truth to it.
And as Meta as all of that sounded, it really is just an outgrowth of the overarching purpose from which this thought flow had begun, which of course could not be uncovered until I had allowed it to unfold without consciously steering myself to it. I commenced writing here on this post in order to calm my mind, which was preventing me from achieving the “no mind” of sleep. And in allowing myself to tap, however superficially, into the wellspring of my existence within the here and now, which is being for the sake of being, via writing for the sake of writing, I have found a sort of quietitude that will hopefully allow me to slip into the cover of my dreams. Buenas noches.
In which I am struck with insomnia, and reflecting therein on practices I had been neglecting, and an outline thereof of vowed goals to sustain in el futuro.
I’ve been struck, unfortuitously, with a bout of insomnia tonight, which I have been fortunate not to have had in quite some time. Before moving to NYC and plunged headfirst into a whirlwind of frenetic work and survival, I used to get insomnia a fair amount. I tended to utilize such times for writing. Which may be one reason, come to think of it, why I no longer write as frequently as I once did as a West Coast whippersnapper. During college, I wrote sometimes multiple short pieces a day. Now, many moons later, it’s more like once a month.
While I can’t really help that my cognitive and emotional space is spent on other also fairly important things, like teaching kids, I do miss delving into this personal creative space, just as I miss other creative or emotional outlets I used to devote some time to, such as playing my hand drums or hiking/running up the sides of mountains. And I know that every day that I no longer do these things, I am slowly losing the chops that I once had.
I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s Outliers at the moment, and his argument about success as attributable mainly to extensive practice, as opposed to talent, made a lot of sense to me. I remember my cross country coach in high school (a terrible math teacher, but an excellent running coach) telling us that after two days of rest we would begin losing a certain percentage of our fitness. And I remember reading an interview with John McLaughlin–one of my favorite musicians and world renowned for his lightning fast licks on the guitar–in which he stated that he could tell that he was losing his skills after only two days without practice.
While at a conference recently in Seattle, during a roundtable discussion with other educators about “hybrid” roles for teachers, one teacher who was currently in that role (1/2 time in the classroom, 1/2 time doing policy related work) commented on how during time spent away from the classroom, such as the 2 days we had spent at this conference, he felt his connection to classroom practice slipping away.
I don’t know if 2 days is some magic number, but the big idea here is that without nearly daily practice in something, we begin to lose the skills and capabilities (one could even call it a type of ‘muscle memory‘) we had worked so hard to build. Furthermore, I’m reflecting on the notion that mastery is not some peak that one reaches and plants a flag in and retains from there on out for the rest of one’s life. Mastery has to be built through a lot of hard work and practice (Gladwell says roughly 10,000 hours), and then sustained.
Though I do think that there are certain tracks and pathways that, once formed, can be more easily re-awakened, even if they haven’t been practiced in a while. For example, I’ve been running for many years, but l’ll go through sometimes long periods where I don’t run at all, for reasons such as work, the season, or travel. But when I do begin running again, after a short period of initial soreness, it’s pretty easy for me to ease back into it to the point where I was before. Of course, I ain’t a “master” runner. I don’t run races or anything. But my point is that if you’ve invested a fair amount of time in something in the past, if you begin doing it again, after a short re-learning period, you’re back on track fairly quickly based on where you left off.
All of this is essentially to say that I’m realizing that I have to get much more disciplined about investing more time back into activities and practices that are important to me to develop and maintain, such as writing as an avenue of self-exploration, reflection, connection to a larger community, and expansion of thoughts and feelings.
So here is an action plan, which I am hesitant to lay out as I hate promising things that I don’t follow up on, and I also doubt that anyone really cares about my personal goals, but I feel like it’s better to lay out concrete, explicit goals if this is really important to me:
- I will write by hand in my journal 2 nights a week before going to bed (writing by hand forces me to produce a substantially different style of thought and writing, since I’m mainly accustomed to writing on a keyboard)
- I will publish 1 blog post a week
- I will play my hand drums once a week
- I will hike at least twice a year
There it is. Now I’ve got to do the much harder work of holding myself to it.
There seems to be a direct link for me between insomnia and self-exploration via blog writing, so I will capitalize upon this opportunity while my sleep cycle is being disrupted. I admit that I have been frequently opening up a blank window in order to begin writing, only to find that I don’t even know where to start. It’s not so much that I have a lack of things to explore, but rather that everything inside there is so densely intertangled that I don’t know what strand is worth picking up to examine. In a sense, these past 2 weeks have been a sort of slow uncoiling of my inner and outer worlds as they seek to realign themselves together from out of their disjoint.
My sudden career shift has me excited, while also nervous. Nervous because I know that there are many aspects of indoctrined cultural training that must still be challenged within me; in dealing with systemic racism and socio-economic inequity, I must be able to explore the notion of myself as a member of a group, rather than as a unique individual. It is a group that I have tried, at times, to pretend that I am not a part of, even as I have partook in the privileges of its membership, however unknowingly. That group is the little box that I generally avoid filling in on questionaires, the one that says Caucasian or simply–and rather yawningly–White. Attach onto that the further group membership of Male, and even further than that: Raised in High Income and Highly Segregated Area, and there you go. That’s my grouping in this society, whether I like it or not.
I have been aware of what it means to be privileged for some time, based mainly on socio-economic status. But the fact is that I grew up in an area where people of color were few and far between, isolated into small, distant enclaves. So it was difficult for me to reconcile my awareness of socio-economic status with racial and ethnic inequity, however much I knew that it existed. It existed somewhere else.
When a white person finally has an experience where they are made jarringly aware of the fact that they are White, and that they are therefore Privileged, it makes them extremely uncomfortable. They want to avoid, at all costs, such experiences. It challenges their belief in their innate value as an individual, as a unique, distinct person whose worth in society is based strictly upon merit. I can remember distinctly one of these first experiences, though I’m sure there were many more before that that I have effectively blocked from my memory. It was while I was traveling alone in Peru, and I was taken to a part of Lima where there was a huge outdoor market of secondhand goods, in the middle of the city downtown. I was told that I needed to have a guide, that I absolutely could not go there alone. I was not to carry any valuables on my person, and to be aware of my belongings at all times. This was heavily stressed to me, to the point that I was extremely nervous before I went, though I am fairly adventurous when it comes to being in sketchy situations. And indeed, when I walked through the streets of that market, I suddenly became shockingly aware of my utter Whiteness. In the midst of a crowd of dark skinned people living in poverty, here was this white foreigner. The very fact of my existence in their midst signaled my privilege; that I could even travel there from so far away. I wasn’t wearing fancy clothes, I wasn’t wearing jewelry. I had worked hard and saved my money to travel there. But I knew that I was privileged just by the fact of my skin, just by the fact of where I happened to be born. I felt like an alien. I became aware of how strange it was that in one context—my normal environment—things like a nice watch and shoes are just things you get to fit in; but here in this place, such things were what made you stand out like a sore thumb.
And so what I was experiencing, essentially, was the idea of what it feels like to be someone defined as a part of a group based on immediate appearance. I was an Other. I didn’t belong there. That feeling of unbelonging stung. It was highly disturbing. We white people don’t typically understand how it is to be viewed as a part of a group. We resent being made to be aware of this grouping, not realizing that it is something that people of color have to deal with every single day.
It makes me uncomfortable even to talk about these kinds of things, just as I’m sure that it makes you uncomfortable to read them. Am I a racist? Certainly not intentionally. But my society is racist, and unfortunately, it has embedded its racism in me such that I have to struggle to remain aware of it in order to call it out on its existence. We like to pretend that everything has been put behind us. Slavery is a thing of the past. Segregation has been outlawed. Etc. And things have certainly gotten better. But when you see the statistics of the achievement gap in education, for example, or the statistics on prisons, or just simply journey to any inner city grotto, it becomes hard to deny the fact that we’ve still got a hell of a long way to go.
So this is, conversely, what I am also excited about in my current career shift. I am excited to be able to be actively involved in working to struggle against this systemic racism, even if that might be only just within myself. Being an educator in a “high needs” urban public school means that you will have to struggle not only with how society views your students, but with how your students and their families view you. Who are you? Are you just another one of them? Or are you a part of a grouping that goes beyond such petty distinctions, inclusive of all of humanity? The thing is, you can’t deny where you have come from, nor what you look like. But you can deny the urge to ignore your identity as a part of a group, and to stop pretending that everything is equal, that all the world is just. Because it isn’t. Not yet. But it could be.
All of the unspoken pent up thoughts of a day string themselves down within your subconscious cells until you’ve sentenced yourself into another sleepless night of breathless anxiety. It is no wonder, in such circumstances, that hordes of the worlds populace herd themselves eagerly into mentalities of the meek, hypocritical doctrines of the downtrodden. Even if words and visions held sacred are somewhat dated, inaccurate, or even completely off the mark, still, they offer the solace of a given naming of the unknown, they can give voice to hidden worlds that are capable of being accepted blindly, or half-heartedly, or at whatever degree of compromise and diligence that one is willing to bestow it in order to make it through another day with one’s mental health still intact, however tenuous. Those of us who are not so accepting of other’s words are doomed to the hell of our own awakenings.
One way or another, there is no escaping your self. The subliminal structures of nature work tirelessly to shock you into conscious awareness of all of the evolving life around you. Look, listen, learn! Yet all you want to do is sleep. To allow the unmanifest worlds within lie dormant for another day, until eventually, of course, they must explode outward from the slowly accumulating pressure. But all one can do momentarily is end the charade of tossing and gasping and sit in front of a computer screen in the early morning hours to vent what little known words there be, with the hope that this sacrifice, this little cutting from the heart will be enough to allow mindlessness again for a little while more. A truce with rebel subconscient forces. However imperfect and ineffective these words might be, at least they are all your own, strung out limply on the roadside from the unspeakable suffering of physical existence.