culture, education, In My Opinion, inspiration, philosophy

IMO: Platitudes for Happiness

 Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star.  W. Clement Stone.

As a high school teacher, what’s typical of most schools are the inspirational posters hanging on every wall, every door. Something for students to think about as they walk from A to B.  Advice from a sage like Dedication and dreams are powerful combinations. Character is doing the right thing, even when no one is looking. Don’t give up until you are proud. Prove them wrong. Don’t call it a dream; call it a goal. Do something today that your future self with thank you for….

Wait a minute. I thought happiness was found during the process. It’s the journey, not the destination. After much blood, sweat, and tears for decades, I’m at my destination and still not happy. Life is a struggle at every stage; ultimately, it is a life in motion, shedding one’s skin, in a transition from one stage to another complete with its own set of challenges.  Are you searching for happiness? All those platitudes and lofty goals won’t secure it. Maybe I should aim to be content? Friends say it’s better to be content than happy, but it feels to me to be a disguise for complacency. I’m neither content or happy. That makes me feel like an ingrate. I take my life too seriously. I have issues.

I never wanted to be a high school teacher. I wanted to be a college teacher. I’m tired that I have to work in the trenches, dealing with obnoxious teenagers, to be politically correct, inspirational, and compassionate to all students every day no matter what inappropriate thing they say or do. I am that sergeant in war movies who answers to officers, some idiotic, some great, always a revolving door, the principals, and superintendents who come and go and meanwhile, my responsibilities compound, the acronyms multiply like rabbits. I can’t believe after 18 years, I have to do this for eight more years before I retire. What’s worse, the classes I created, devoted my heart and soul to were taken away and given to younger teachers. I’m supposed to be a good sport, but I am resentful. I already paid my dues. I feel unappreciated. I am steaming, and the bitterness takes root. Why didn’t my dream come true? My trajectory was the moon.
What strange star is this? The dark irony in it all? I’m really good at what I do.

When I reach this irrational, dark, ugly state of being, there are tricks I employ to pull me out of the situational depression. I walk through the hallways and see the sweeties, the great kids who listen, cooperate, want to learn and I focus on their faces and say to myself, “You are the reason I love being a teacher.” They are the talented ones. They are the introverted ones. They are the funny ones who are mischevious with big personalities, and they make me laugh. They are the ones who have giving hearts and optimistic dreams. They are the A+ students who are pegged for greatness, and I can’t wait to hear how all of them turn out. They are the next generation and I have front row seats.

The other night, I was up at 2AM and in a dark mood. Stiff and sore, I couldn’t sleep and I wished I was someone else, somewhere else, and generally feeling sorry for myself. I wished I could feel happiness or contentedness at this stage of my life. That very same morning, one of my stellar students who has a first-rate intellect and wants to become a scientist and solve the riddle of cancer gave me a card.

Ms. Bruchman, I wanted to start off by thanking you for taking the time to write me a teacher recommendation letter. Your support throughout my 4 years of high school has meant a lot to me! If it wasn’t for your belief in me both academically and personally, I wouldn’t be where I am today. You are one of the very special people who has impacted me as a person, and I won’t forget it. Under your influence, I learned and grew so much, especially when it comes to being a leader and speaking front of people! I hope I have made you proud, and I will continue to work hard wherever my future will lead me. Once again, from the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU so much for everything. Love, Mary.

My Mr. Holland’s Opus moment. An impasse. I am not starting out anymore. I am almost 55, and it’s okay that I’m not in my ambition-driven-make-your-dreams-come-true stage. I feel it finally. I wasn’t “great” in the pursuit of it, I was great because, at my destination, I cared and supported someone else who will surpass my lofty goals by a long shot.That doesn’t mean I’m going to be complacent. I’ve asked the powers that be to let me teach a new class next year which would require a lot of effort and learning and fun on my part. If they let me, I will be energized. If they take it away, I won’t be mad. I will ask for something else.

To be happy, make other people happy.  W. Clement Stone

culture, In My Opinion, inspiration, love, movies, philosophy

Martha’s Gift

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Last year, Martha was giddy to see us. We stopped in her room and gave her a present, a fuzzy cardigan, size small. Kathy, the activities director at the Haven Nursing Home, had organized the resident wish list, and my high school students who are club members of Interact Club (an affiliate of the Rotary) each year buys gifts for the long-term residents, and we delivered them today. Armand the 99 year-old French American wanted to kiss everyone. Fred ate his chocolate bar and clutched his new collared shirt. Joe thanked us for his ball cap and started crying. Mae the nun and former school teacher clapped and said, “I’m so surprised. None of my students ever went this far to give me a present!”  Vindication! As a teacher, I frequently hear how today’s youth are self-absorbed and passive. It’s not what I see.

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The first year I visited Martha in her room, Kathy warned me that Martha was a chatterbox. She was sharp and expressive. When I asked her what was her favorite experience, she confided that at fourteen, she was waiting tables at a diner out at the end of the valley close to where they were filming a John Wayne picture. Mr. Wayne sauntered in and filled up the place with his stature and reputation. Martha was his waitress. Young and pretty, he asked if she wanted to be an extra on the set. “Of course I said yes. Who would refuse?” Her eyes moistened at the memory and her smile was delicate. What fun she had had in the dust and sunshine as one of the townsfolk on the set. She couldn’t remember the name of the film, but that was irrelevant. She made certain I knew that Mr. Wayne was a gentleman and that day’s adventure was a highlight of her life.

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The second year I visited Martha, she was at her walker, her eyes bright with anticipation of bending my ear. She had never married or had children. I asked her what she had done to earn a living, and she told me she spent her career as a WAVE.  I’m a Navy Veteran, so we hugged each other as if we had been stationed together.

Today I visited Martha. She was lying in bed gazing at the walls of her room. Kathy leaned down to her ear and asked her if she was feeling okay. She murmured she was fine, but her sadness was palpable, and I had a hard time keeping a smile on my face. Our group gave her the fuzzy cardigan and she thanked us, hoarse.

I know next year when we visit her room, it will be empty. Of course this makes me sad, but I can’t help but feel I had been given a gift — she was the fuzzy cardigan. She had inspired me. Martha’s younger self is in my current novel about a girl who gets to play an extra on the set of a movie picture. She will become a WWII heroine in the third manuscript, if I get the chance to write it.  I can’t wait to research the WACs and WAVES.

Who’d of thought this little old lady had such adventures. She didn’t tell me how trying her life had been or expounded upon her pain or failures. She remembered John Wayne and her atypical career which gave her joy and satisfaction. I willed myself to stop crying, for it hurt to see her physical and mental decay. She learned to live life without her fears stopping her. How cool is that?

culture, history, In My Opinion, nature, poetry

“For my ally is the Force” – Yoda

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This year, I am assigned to teach World History to 120 shiny, freshman fourteen year-olds.  Imagine my dismay when I polled my classes and most all of them had not seen any Star Wars? I’m still reeling five years ago when I conducted a similar poll and students had no idea who George Harrison was. What was once like breathing air has evaporated and time has shifted to another generation who steps in to take its place. If I wait another fifteen years, another round of freshman will sit before me, and I suspect they will not know Harry Potter. How strange to possess two realities–the inside me feels seventeen, but the outside me looks like my mother. Back to Yoda.

Laozi, a Chinese scholar and philosopher, is credited for developing Daoism, around the 6th century according to legend. It is an ethical system embracing the natural order verses the social order. It is nature, not man, that holds the truth of the universe. To live in harmony with nature, rejecting governmental intervention, to seek the Dao,”the Way”, that universal force which surrounds us. Release yourself and allow the Dao to guide you–those are the tenets of Daoism.

I see the same concepts in Transcendentalism advocated by 19th century scholars, Emerson and Thoreau. Henry David, seeing the truths of nature in the smallest creatures like the ants when he spent nearly two years in the woods at Walden PondOr Walt Whitman, metaphorically connecting his soul with a spider from Leaves of Grass:

“A Noiseless Patient Spider” 

A noiseless patient spider,

I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,

Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
And Emily Dickinson, whose bees and blue dome were her drinking mates and her pub; they, getting drunk on nature in “I taste a liquor never brewed”. Or, another favorite of mine:
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.
Their connection with nature lends itself to Daoism.  

Remember the 1996 John Travolta film, Phenomenon? I enjoyed the premise and questions George raised in the film. After seeing lights in the sky, he is hit as if by lightning and wakes to discover his brain’s activity surpasses the rest of humanity. I love his explanation of energy and matter connecting all organisms. Einstein thought the same thing. Another film playing out the secrets of matter and energy as the glue that binds us all was Powder (1995) starring Jeff Goldblum and Sean Patrick Flanery as Jeremy, the poor teenager whose skin color and abilities to harness energy gave him unusual gifts and few friends. I can look past the holes of the film and appreciate the questions raised. I still love the last scene when he runs in the field and the bolts are drawn to him like a magnet. It seems like Daoism is at work here, too.

 

My favorite example of explaining “the Way” is Yoda in The Empire Strike’s Back. Substitute with “the force” and it’s the same.
These examples are but a few. Do you see Daoism overlapping in books, films, and other historical periods?