The View, this time, is from behind.
When I knew for sure I was leaving my job I held for nearly thirty years, I started to focus not so much on what was next as much as how fast, how so very fast it all went, and I realized that about the same amount of time to come would put me at nearly ninety years old. Sigh.
I cleaned out my office—slowly at first, then with much more indifference. I carried piles of books to a common table in the building’s lobby, I moved file cabinets and other useless furniture into a storage area for someone else to claim and configure to their job the way we do with all things in our lives—we mold them to fit in the corners of our growth and accomplishments. Yeah, I was done with all of it.
And outside my office I took down all announcements and office hours and lists of readings from my bulletin board so that all that was left was black construction paper. It looked clean, like a slate, and I absolutely loved the metaphor of it all, but I also thought I should take a piece of chalk and write in some demanding font, “Outta here.”
Instead, I typed up a favorite saying of mine, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated,” by Confucius. I stapled it to the middle of the board, smiled, and went about my business of unraveling three decades and finding my way to that diversion Frost wrote about with such eloquence.
Next to my office was a classroom, and students often leaned against the wall (and my door) while waiting for another class to empty before entering. A few noticed the saying and commented to me when I returned to my office. “I like it,” one woman commented, “because it makes me think about it.” I liked that. I wish she had been one of my students.
The following week I added another quote to the board. This time Lao Tzu, one of my absolute favorites: “If you don’t change directions, you may end up where you are going.” Just stapling that to the board punctured a ball of emotion that spilled out across the rest of that day. How many times have I preached, I thought, about the dangers of getting caught in the currents and letting the world around us carry us through instead of pulling ourselves out of the stream and deciding for ourselves where we are going? Students had the same reaction, and I know they were wondering just who is it that decided going to college right then was the right thing to do. Often there is absolutely nothing wrong with where we are going; this is not a rebellious statement, I don’t think. I believe Lao was just indicating it can’t hurt to get a glimpse of what’s ahead every once in a while to see if you really are okay with the path you’re on.
Well, the board caught on and people started asking when the next quote was going up, gathering around my door on Tuesdays after they figured out I didn’t work Monday’s and that I must have posted them early Tuesday mornings, which I did. Up went James Taylor, Mae West, Seneca, St Augustine, and Jonathan Swift. More than a few passing people commented on how motivating the sayings were, and how they looked forward to them. Well, motivation was always my profession anyway, not teaching. For those thirty years it wasn’t English I was there for—hell, I was barely qualified for the first fifteen of those years. It was that I knew how to get them to find significance in it all—the work, the direction, the balance of dreams and reality, the math necessary to never forget life is a line segment, not a ray. My job in New England after college was to motivate people, and I learned it well. So when my car broke down and I ended up teaching college, I knew instinctively that it really doesn’t matter how much I know the work, if they aren’t engaged—if they don’t feel motivated—I’d be speaking to the walls. Plus, I think my board was an extension of what I knew was about to end, and I started in those last months to motivate myself.
William Penn. Herman Hesse. Helen Keller.
Then it was the first week in May at the start of my last week ever on campus. And I found this: We must let go of the life we have planned so as to accept the one that is waiting for us—Joseph Campbell.
I typed it up, printed it out, moved Thoreau a bit for balance, and stapled Joseph to the board. That one was for me.
One of my most vivid memories from Spain was being in Santiago after more than a month of walking at about two or three miles an hour, sitting in cafes, crossing Roman bridges noting each step, each breath—essentially more than a month of barely moving to cross a nation—and then seemingly suddently we were boarding a train for the six-hour ride–just six hours–back to Pamplona. Six hours. It took four weeks to go from Pamplona to Santiago, and six hours to get back. On top of that disturbing reality check was that after a month of barely moving, we were suddenly barreling along at sixty and seventy miles per hour. It simply felt wrong. I leaned against a window looking at the landscape and when I saw pilgrims walking the opposite direction toward Santiago, holding their walking sticks, their backpacks strapped and the sun beating down as they walked and laughed, talking to other pilgrims on the road, I got a pit in the center of my stomach, a nauseous pain, like a child on a school bus for the first time who sees his parents outside walking the other way. I wanted to get off; I wanted to pull back the doors between the carriages, toss my pack out onto the trail and tumble out like a character in a movie. Writing that just now brought the pit back; it was that real, it is that real.
I’m a pilgrim, not a passenger.
Sometimes that happens. You’re riding along, caught up in the mainstream, barely noticing where you’re going because you’re engaged with everyone else in the stream barely noticing where they’re going, and you catch a glimpse of some shadow of yourself just out of reach. And you know that’s where you should be, of course, or at least you dream that’s where you should be, but the trouble, the pain, the expense, the sacrifice, the explanations necessary, the possibility of failure, the probability of doubt all slide in front of you, each holding you back just a little, all adding up to a gravitational force of “now” and “comfortable” and “responsible” that’s harder to break free from than the strongest of currents.
Well I’m here to tell you, when you do jump, it’s terrifying. The pit returns in a different fashion, this time pulsating, “Oh my God, what have I done?” You’ll never lose the pit, one way or the other.
But then you turn around and look back down the stream where you were headed, where everyone else is laughing and engaged and are all still heading, and finally, from this vantage, you see what you couldn’t from the stream, and you know, I mean you know it like I knew I should have been out on the Camino heading west instead of on the train heading east, that no matter where you go next you had been heading in the wrong direction.
I cleaned out my office, and I walked outside the door that last day and for a moment I thought about leaving the quotes there, or maybe replacing them all with just one quote in the middle of the black construction paper, saying, “and this bird you cannot change—Ronnie van Zant,” but I changed my mind and took them all down and gave them to my friend Jack. Each week he’d come by my office and we’d talk about the latest quote and what it meant to us. Then on that last day when I was about to throw out the last folder of teaching materials, I found another passage, typed it up and stapled it to the board.
I’d like to believe it is still there:
“If a man in the street were to pursue his self, what kind of guiding thoughts would he come up with about changing his existence? He would perhaps discover that his brain is not yet dead, that his body is not dried up, and that no matter where he is right now, he is still the creator of his own destiny. He can change this destiny by taking his one decision to change seriously, by fighting his petty resistance against change and fear, by learning more about his mind, by trying out behavior which fills his real need, by carrying out concrete acts rather than conceptualizing about them, by practicing to see and hear and touch and feel as he has never before used these senses…We must remind ourselves, however, that no change takes place without working hard and without getting your hands dirty. There are no formulae and no books to memorize on becoming. I only know this: I exist, I am, I am here, I am becoming, I am my life and no one else makes it for me. I must face my own shortcomings, mistakes, transgressions. No one can suffer my non-being as I do, but tomorrow is another day, and I must decide to leave my bed and live again. And if I fail, I don’t have the comfort of blaming you or life or God.”