Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Synthesis (Or, 4:30am; Revision; Shaving)

When I taught Freshmen Composition at Northern Arizona University, I loved the Synthesis Essay. Teaching the Synthesis Essay was like letting my hands sit under a waterfall of endlessly flowing, gentle, warm, slightly-sudsy, lavender-smelling water.

Consider: synthesis is all about taking one thing and adding it to another and then saying, huh, check out what happened when we did that. But synthesis doesn't stop there. Synthesis--like a true champion--goes the extra round, It says, let's add a third thing and see what that does to the combination of the first two.

Synthesis then amazes even itself by saying (sometimes) let's add a fourth thing. Or a fifth. Or--gasp--a sixth. And in the process of adding all these new entities, the property we began with changes entirely, takes on new meaning, new symbolism, new smell.

Now that Tyler is in the midst of a nap, after waking at 4:30 this morning, and I have a large mug of strong fair-trade Sidamo beside me, I'm in the mood for Synthesis. I turn to Synthesis like you might turn to a good friend and put your arm around his shoulders, then stick your index finger inside of his inner ear, wiggle it around. When he turns to you and says, Dude! I asked you not to do that, like, seven times already! You respond, with that knowing smile, Ah! Yes! But those other seven times, I was using a different finger, so I have not used any of those other fingers in this most recent inner-ear wiggling. It's a new finger!

So: sleep-deprived and ready for the great nature of our friend Synthesis, let's begin.

Synthesis: Thanks for that introduction, Luke.

Me: You are welcome, Synthesis. It's nice to have you here in our kitchen. Would you like a cup of coffee?

Synthesis: Don't mock me. You know I have no throat. Or intestines.

Me: (Nodding gravely and with respect.)

Synthesis: So. You asked me here to do some work for you. What are we using me for today?

Me: Three events. Small events, really. First, waking up at 4:30 am. Second, the nature and act of revision. Third, Shaving.

Synthesis: Okay. Just three?

Me: Yes.

Synthesis: Okay. Easy as making a Jell-O mold with no artificial flavoring and adding some finely chopped, then ground, walnuts to the top in the shape of very tiny hearts. Then, applying a thin layer of peanuts--also finely chopped and ground--on top of those walnuts--just to say, hey, Walnuts, it's not always about you. Learn to play the FOUNDATIONAL role too, not just the role of glory. Haven't you ever heard that moving line from "Eye of the Tiger": you trade your passion for glory? Walnuts, you are seriously in danger of doing so.

Walnuts: Hey, I wasn't bothering anybody. I don't want to be a part of this whole Synthesis thing. Just let me go back to sleep.

Me: If I can't sleep, nobody gets to sleep.

Walnuts: Tyler is sleeping.

Me: I meant, nobody in this kitchen gets to sleep.

Walnuts: (Nods knowingly, respecting the authority of the master-of-the-kitchen-at-this-moment.)

Synthesis: Okay, here we go. Waking up at 4:30 is hard. I'm not going to lie, Luke. It's tough stuff. Your body craves more sleep. You count the four hours of rest you've gotten, and your mind rightly declares: No. No, I will not move forward in this state. And if that were all there was to it, your mind would win the day. Game over. But to your mind's declaration, you add Revision. You add the powerful truths so beautifully expressed here, in this blog by children's author Pat Zietlow Miller.

And you realize that the actual waking up at 4:30 am this morning isn't the whole story. It's only one piece of the story. One chapter. The cool thing is, you get to revise it. Even as the day goes on, you get to revise why you woke at 4:30. You get to revise the time you'll go to sleep tonight in order to get a more human quota of hours. 4:30 isn't the final word. It's only a scene from the picture book of your life, buddy.

And then we add Shaving. Yes. How I wish I could shave! But I cannot. I have no throat, after all. And no cheeks. But Luke, you consider the ways in which your three-year old son helps you hold the bottom of the razor, watching in amazement as the hair falls from your stubble-beard and leaves your face looking clean, fresh, exhausted. You watch your sons eyes. You listen to him say, "I do not have a beard so I do not shave. But when I get big like you I will shave too." And you realize that the wake-up doesn't feel as hard. That the revision starts to feel possible, exciting even. The Shaving marries those first two activities and creates a third, entirely feasible, reality: life is about balance. Some mornings, you will wake and feel exhausted. Some mornings, you will wake and feel ready to do one-hundred jumps on the trampoline of your soul. Other mornings, it's an in-between mixture.

But you take what has happened--the 4:30 wake ups of your life--you add the possibility of revision, and you lather a thick layer of shaving cream all over that and say, Yes, there are going to be moments of such startling joy and mundane delight that the balance of it all will somehow work itself out.

And then you go on living the rest of your day. Including me, of course, in everything you do.

Me: Thank you Synthesis. Really. I appreciate your words very much.

Synthesis: I know.

Me: Yes. Are you sure you wouldn't like some coffee?

Synthesis: Mock me once, shame on me. Mock me twice, shame on--wait a minute, we can add those two instances of your mocking me and...

Walnuts: I feel like I'm invisible, like no one ever really SEES me, you know?