This fall has been a mess of work and work and children and love and inner change. Fall always strips me to a bare and raw center. I cry often, I feel the veil of death lifted and yet so close it seems to burn through me. On certain days I stare long into the faces of others and try to see how it is they move through this life, this one journey, with their loved ones or not, knowing the end. At times, I tell myself questions about death are my depressed self talking, but at other times I think they are the voice of the divine calling me back to the cradle of the world--it's radiance, it's lesson of constant change. Death reminds me of why I am here. Death cultivates change in me. It pushes me to question suffering.
In my classes, I try to come prepared to be open. I try to come willing to be changed by my students and by our discussions. Last week one of my classes read and discussed Cynthia Ozick's short story "The Shawl," a story that like no other cuts through me, ravishes my heart, leaves me raw. It's a story about the Holocaust, a young Jewish mother, her 15 month-old daughter, and her 14-year-old niece. It is so well written that from it's first line you, as reader, are gripped by the inevitability of doom, of death and loss of the worst kind (if you are a mother), and the terrible realities of human cruelty.
One of my students did a short presentation on the story. She is a mother of five. She asked profound questions about human experience; she voiced belief that education could change us. "If all of us in this room were the world would we do this? Would be act like the Nazis after having read this story?"
We didn't know. We were not sure. We knew that more genocide had occurred since and that genocide had taken place before the Holocaust. But mostly we believed that we were good and we would not. Mostly we believed that there were "bad guys" out there and we couldn't stop them.
One student raised her hand and told a story about studying the Holocaust in high school. They took a trip to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. and spoke with Holocaust survivors. One women, a survivor, said, the moment she knew there was no God was when she was standing in line beside a mother with her crying baby and an officer came up and ripped the baby from the mother and holding him by the leg smashed his head against the wall, killing him.
I do not know how anyone goes on living after experiencing such things. I do not think God faults this women for not believing. But mostly, when reading about violence and cruelty I remain in a perpetual state of not-understanding. I try to stay open though I do not, as a rule, go to see movies about the Holocaust because it hurts too much. We know a great deal about this event because so much has been written and there was documentation.
My class and I went on to discuss human behavior, studies like the Stanford Prison Experiment and the shock experiment done by Stanley Milgram. Then we watched a Ted Talk on The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo. We learned his ideas about human cruelty, which he speaks of as "evil." We learned that it is from structures of power that people are turned into monsters and that the idea of a "bad apple" or a "bad guy" is not only inaccurate but it allows us to believe that evil can be contained in one body and that body is not us, it is other than us. Therefore, we aren't at risk for engaging in evil. But the studies suggest otherwise.
This fall I have spent more hours grading papers and preparing for classes than I ever have in my life. I feel perpetually unprepared, I feel disconnected from my loved ones at times, I cannot keep up with my friendships, I only exercise once a week, but I have somehow felt the core of my being radiate into what is now November, the darkest month of the year and the month of my birthday. I have not written much but I have written some and I feel hopeful that there is beauty in our work and we can grow and change and grow again. I feel hopeful that my work as a teacher is a higher calling and that if I can stay present and open and alive in the classroom, I can connect with students and help them find their way.
* * * * *
Let the World Come
Gather devotion, love,
Gather radiance –light of light—
Gather these leaves in the wind,
Gather the children, let them into your lap,
Into your being—
You came to change and be changed
You came to grow your hands open
And you will walk among the gods of this earth
Until your fingers break and you learn
That your hands were never made to hold, to fist,
They are glowing stars, point them at the sky
Bend your knees let the world come
Let it take you.