Monday, December 8, 2014

It's a Swamp Thing

No matter what else is going on, being around trees, puddles, roots, moss, vegetation always brings peace. And right now, we are fortunate to be renting an apartment behind which a good-sized expanse of forest sits.

Overt the past week, Tyler and I have enjoyed bushwhacking within the forest--exploring any path that seems to call us, and walking through the EYE POKERS (twigs or thorns approaching eye level), the FEET GOBBLERS (any puddle area deeper than our shoe laces), and along the BALANCE BEAMS (long trees that have fallen and so afforded us ample opportunity to balance our way across).

There is something about bushwhacking that feels right. Something about exploring a forest without a path. Something about zig-zagging our way through notable sights, noises, opportunities.

And when, over this past week, the forest turned into a legitimate swamp with all the rainfall, this excitement grew. Now, we could leap from moss-covered rock to moss-covered rock. We could stretch our legs across substantial FEET GOBBLERS and see if we'd reach safety on the other side.

The swamp smells. The swamp is dirty. The swamp makes bushwhacking all the more riveting. And Tyler's desire to go out and explore it grows exponentially and correlates with the water level.

Meanwhile--as my 7th grade students explore with great cordiality and energy Avi's Nothing But the Truth, and as Jen and I prepare for Christmas, and as Benjamin, our one year old, takes his first wobbling steps on his own--I find myself reading and re-reading accounts of Ferguson.

I re-read all of the plot-driven events, all of the analysis, the commentary, the calls to action, the calls to change, the calls to consider, the calls to contemplation.

And as a swamp-exploring Daddy, I wonder what I will tell my sons when they are old enough to understand. I wonder how I will explain the kinds of balance our world needs, the very present realities of the dangers that lurk everywhere, and prevent justice for some based on what Toni Morrison calls a social construct--invented hate to match swollen, fearful hearts.

It is far easier to tell Tyler what moss-covered rock towards which to leap; it is more difficult to chart a path through the tragedy and pain our world sees played and replayed.

When Tyler and I explore the forest, we take a new path each time. Now that our forest has become a swamp, the possibilities for paths actually increase. The water--rather than hiding avenues--reveals them. The mucky water shows us leaps we never would have seen before. The dirty build-up affords us opportunities to see chances to buck tired, traditional views of safety in pursuit of something more real, something more right.

So, maybe it is a swamp thing. Maybe the injustice we see playing out is the ultimate call to make new leaps. Maybe the inexplicable pain and horror we now watch is causing a rise in the water level, demanding that we get off the paths we've been walking and start to make leaps toward justice.

They will not be easy. And they will throw us off balance. But the status quo is no longer even an option.

I do not have words to explain to my sons the kind of world I wish we lived in; and I know that thinkers and activists far more esteemed and brave then I am even say that such a perfect world of justice and grace is impossible--people like critical race theorist Derrick Bell, who believed that racism will always be among us, though our challenge to fight it is no less necessary.

However, I do have the words to tell my sons to leap. I have the words to tell them to look for the gaps where the water has risen, to see a trajectory across, and to go for it. And as they grow, I can hope to tell them to keep leaping--in the swamps, yes--but also in their schools, in their relationships, in their words, in their lives, and towards justice.

And I can hope beyond hope to model this leaping, however humbly and imperfectly I can.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Swimming with Thoreau

Yesterday, after school, Jennifer and Tyler and Benjamin picked me up and we all went to Walden Pond, famed residence of the 19th century advocate of simplicity, nature, possibility, and idealism: Henry David Thoreau. Toting bags of beach towels, snacks, various changes of clothes, diapers, a stroller, and sand shovels, we marched onto the beach and plopped down on a spot near the water.

The heat came in waves, as did the people. Over the next two hours, more and more small children crowded onto Walden's shores, and the sounds of their delight created a crescendo that mirrored each lapping wave.

"Let's build a sandcastle as big as I am!" Tyler yelled out.

"Yaba laba tu-tu!" Benjamin announced.

Jen and I acknowledged both children, and the sandcastle construction commenced. As we layered on handfuls of sand, I kept asking myself, What would Thoreau make of this?  From his small cabin on the other side of the pond, would he look out with disgust as the seeming chaos, noise, and carving out of his shore? Or would his eyebrows rise with glee at the prospect of so much unabashed joy, so much delight from children in the place that so deeply delighted him.

Our family castle grew, and the construction schedule allowed for various breaks to rush into the cool water of Walden, dive under, and glide, then to rush back out and feel the sand prickle and tickle all the wet places on our bodies.

Eventually, we finished, and we became hungry for dinner, and we found a tick on Tyler's belly, and Benjamin needed to nurse, and we realized that our time to say goodbye to Walden had come.

Thoreau once suggested that, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he steps to the beat of a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." I think Thoreau would not be dissuaded from the notion that his pond is enjoyed by children frolicking in great freedom, building beautiful, big castles. Instead, I think Thoreau might even don his swimming trousers, and dive in. After all, those who stand on shore and wonder don't often move to any drummer, but those who see life's invitations and dive in--chaos, confusion, and all--have the sublime chance to swim in different currents, and to feel the sand stick to where water once flew.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Holy Moley Mountain

In back of our apartment complex, a huge parking lot transformed, this winter, into the trailhead for what Tyler and I have come to call the Holy Moley Mountain--a place built of snow drifts, ice, and the occasional spot of dog urine. In our first foray up the Holy Moley Mountain, which the plows had formed during the first snowstorm of the winter, Tyler and I kept slipping back into the parking lot. Each time we fell, we screamed out, "Holy Moley!" and then we let the ice take us down.

Eventually, we summited the Holy Moley Mountain, with the help of a lot of hand-holding and the forward thrust of our new puppy, Harper Blanche Reynolds. (Harper after Harper Lee, Blanche after the name they had given her at the animal shelter). Breathless and at the top, we determined to "hike" the Holy Moley Mountain every day of the Winter.

As each successive storm has arrived, the Holy Moley Mountain has grown--and its formidable icy ascent has grown slicker, too. But Tyler and I find the climb even more thrilling. (Harper Blanche, I think, does not approve of the climb, or, for that mater, anything cold.)

Over Christmas, my kind and deep-thinking brother Michael gave Jennifer and I a card with a remarkable line from Mary Oliver's book, Blue Pastures: "Who knows, maybe the root is the flower of that other life." And the line has greeted us each morning we've woken of this winter.

As we welcomed our second son, Benjamin Peter, into the family, and as we went through the sleepless nights a second time, that line greeted us. As we've contemplated the loss of one life, in England, for the commencement of another, in Boston, that line greeted us. As we've struggled with the tension between studying something--theorizing possibilities of transformation and change through our doctoral programs--and doing something that actually creates a transformation (however tiny), that line greeted us. As we reflected on dreams turned upside down and swirled around and taken for walks around blocks we never thought existed, that line greeted us.

And in every circumstance, Mary Oliver's line has created a place of peace where worry might have reigned. Our culture is so adept at regurgitating the belief that flowering is what matters--reaching the finish line and raising one's arms in victory. But what if the root here is the flower of that other life? What if the roots that we often so impatiently seek to grow up and out and away from are the flowers, the finish lines, of the kind of life that matters?

When I ask myself that question long and hard enough, I am reminded of a line from a great professor I once had named Marv Wilson. He said, "The essence of religion is relationship." And I think this is true for so many areas of our lives--the essence of education is relationship, the essence of family is relationship, the essence of success is relationship. Our goals and dreams never seem quite so beautiful without the complex and remarkable system of roots beneath them. Or, if we take Mary Oliver's words to heart, maybe above them.

And as Tyler and I make our daily ascent up the Holy Moley Mountain, Mary Oliver's words live in every icy step. Because the summit of that mountain is not nearly as fun as the precarious trek towards it.