Wednesday, January 20, 2010

heaven on earth

My mother tells me in Heaven we have jobs uniquely designed for each of us. I imagine a span of bodies like a wheat field, toiling with purpose. The individual aspects have fallen away in the face of greater good, much like the features of Earth disappear as you zoom outward from a satellite image. You cross over into a new realm when you can no longer see faces, only evidence of their energy, their light.


Every freshmen in American universities is required to take Composition I and II, or versions of them. As a past instructor of these courses, one of the things we teach students is to speak, or write, with authority. This means that in your composition you communicate effectively and impactfully by presenting claims and backing them up with supporting evidence. Beyond that, you present your thinking on the matter at hand, offering something new to say about what others have said before you, always making sure to refrain from using logical fallacies that would hurt your credibility, such as claiming you have foreign policy experience because you live in Alaska and can see Russia on a clear day. I am skilled at this, argumentation and speaking with authority. When you teach a subject your students suppose you to be expert on it. I have passed the rigors of one-on-one interviews by Department Chairs, panel interview by English committee, and on-the-fly interviews over the phone when a Chair needed a class filled last-minute. I spoke with authority, well enough to get the job. I assured these fine people I knew what I was doing, and I assure you that I did. This was a subject with which I was astute. In turn, I was comfortable in my own skin, enough so that my students were able to imbibe that same comfort-level when it was their turn; my ease provided them with their own, an acknowledgment that it was perfectly okay to be themselves and work it out until they found their voice.

The other day at work (I no longer teach Composition), I was asked to explain what superhero I am. This was to be told to a group of 30 strangers in a lower-level conference room in a Vegas hotel. When my turn came, I stood up and went for it, but something was missing. It was my voice. People could hear me, but everything about the words I said and the way I expressed them was flimsy. I picked the Green Lantern. Your guess is as good as mine whether it came out Green Lantern, Green Hornet, or some other green concoction. The Green Lantern is a regular Joe with a power ring to help him do good in the world. He is part of a force and therefore not a loner. He has to be certain that he has the will power to wield his powers effectively or else his power ring will fail. I suppose the Lanterns are a little like the Guardian Angels or the Peace Corps. I like the idea of working with others toward positive ends, but none of this reasoning matters if you don't say it right, and by right I mean that when you stand up to speak you don't make people tap nervous feet waiting for it to end so that they no longer have to imbibe the discomfort-level coming from you.

Being at a loss for words is common enough. Wedding toasts, trying out for the school play, telling someone your feelings when you have no idea if they will turn out to be friend or foe, all of these situations can inhibit the bravado of one's voice.

In a little book called Eat, Pray, Love (maybe you've heard of it), Elizabeth Gilbert explains the Yogic Path. If those two words together make you want to run for the hills, you're not alone. "Yogic"? Never heard of it. But I'm pretty sure I know what it means. You see, I don't do yoga much. I'm a Republican if only in my exercise part of life. We do calisthenics. But back to Gilbert's wisdom. She explains that the yogic path "is about disentangling the built-in glitches of the human condition . . . the heartbreaking inability to sustain contentment." She goes on to explain that "yoga is about . . . the dedicated effort to haul your attention away from your endless brooding over the past and your nonstop worrying about the future so that you can seek, instead, a place of eternal presence from which you may regard yourself and your surroundings with poise."

A place of eternal presence, I think I'd like to go there. I think that's what was missing in the lower level of that Vegas hotel. I was ten steps ahead or ten steps behind. To stand still requires that you let people look at you. Sometimes you don't want them to look because they might see your discontent. But discontent isn't an Achilles heel, although almost all of us view it that way. Discontent can be that you are on your way somewhere, amidst your own process of exploration and development. It can be that you had a bad night's sleep, burned the toast, and were late for the meeting--you became entangled. To stand stripped away from every comfort but your own voice is to stand naked. It's a path right to your own light, whether dim or bright. To be eternally present is to be bright. It's our opportunity to connect most closely with others, to be collective, to allow the individual aspects to fall away.


When flying at night, as you come in for landing, you may have noticed an incredible phenomenon. An optical illusion occurs as you pass over the streets below. As the plane slowly descends, the street lights appear to be waving at you in gentle flicker. I saw this just recently and stopped to consider whether these lights were in fact flickering. I believed it for a moment, but then stepped back into my disbelieving scientific mind to recognize that street lights don't flicker unless we're stepping back into the 1800s. I then looked closer and could see the dark green bushels of the trees. For a brief delay they would blot out the light as the plane passed over. After detecting the source, I zoomed back out again to take in the span of the landscape. I saw hundreds of lights waving up at me, and beckoning me in.