Normally on a Saturday I am inclined to offer some reflections on teaching, but I saw students only one day this week - three days spent with my wife at the hospital and one day when the schools were closed (and I also spent chunks of time at the hospital).
Then perhaps I might be inclined to reflect upon political events, of which clearly there were several of importance this week, or to offer my reaction to a column by a notable writer, yet somehow that does not attract me this morning.
I did read something this week that got me thinking, and that was a reflection on growing old.
That leads me to this morning, on a day when close friends from both high school and college celebrate birthdays, to a reflection on what it means to be at a transition point of life, one defined in part by age - our eligibility for full social security being a key - and in part by beginning to make choices in a different fashion.
So this morning I will offer words and thoughts shaped largely by my approaching the midpoint of my 68th year.
Yesterday two notable Congress critters died. Former Speaker Tom Foley was 84, Congressman Bill Young was 82. As one 67, someone 17 years older does not seem so distant, and it makes me again mindful that I am far closer to the end of my time on earth than I am to its beginning. For all I can look back at a life with a rich mixture of the pleasant and not so pleasant, of successes and things less than successful, as the time seems at time to almost accelerate I find it more important to stop and appreciate the preciousness of now, to savor it, to be focused in the present. Consider that my form of mindfulness, one of course shaped by past experience as it is equally placed in the hopes for a future most of which I will never experience.
Last night I sat for almost two hours in my wife's hospital room as she slept, at times fitfully. Yesterday was in some ways the worst day since we found she had cancer. It was the beginning of a low point in her current treatment, one where for the first time she experienced real nausea, where she felt very weak. We knew this was coming, and yet it is still difficult, even as we know it is only temporary.
I had been there earlier, but she was so sleepy I had left to help a friend with something. She awoke and experienced disappointment that I was not there. So I promised to return, even knowing that for most of the time I would be there she would be unaware of my presence. Still, it mattered that I was there, to both of us.
Because of her illness I have been far less active in some areas that would be my wont. My posting here has since I returned to teaching, dropped significantly. I attend few political and professional events.
The relative rarity of such participation make me more sensitive when I do.
Wednesday evening I attended an event for a new mentor program at Johns Hopkins U School of Education, where a number of notable graduates have been asked to serve as mentors for current students. I am part of the pilot cohort of mentors. I had meet several of the others before, one of whom received his degree at the same time as did I. It reminded me of the importance of teachers (and others in education) owning our profession as a profession. Even with the decreased time and energy I may have outside of my responsibilities first to my wife and then to my current students, I know I must model giving back to the profession. As I drove home from Baltimore that evening I was able to reflect: I have supervised/mentored five student teachers, two of whom were later my colleagues. And I have some three dozen former students who are themselves now classroom teachers, not bad for 17 or so previous years of teaching.
My writing about education has also served as a form of giving back. I was reminded when at my wife's insistence I left her during the afternoon to attend one of two events at which Diane Ravitch was speaking about her new book, this at the Economic Policy Institute. At one point in her remarks Diane talked about retirement (she is 75 and may be the most active she has been in her adult life), noting that with the attacks on pensions and the attempts to limit Social Security and Medicare the new plan for retirement is to continue working - to never retire.
That spoke somewhat to me. EVen without the additional financial pressures of my wife's illness (which are very much minimalized because of her superb insurance as a federal employee) I would have needed some income beyond pension and Social Security for us to maintain the lifestyle we were living.
But we could have adjusted. We could have chosen to restructure how we live, eat, spend time and money. Even had we not, I needed relatively little additional income, which offered great flexibility in what kind of work I chose to do. Others do not have the luxury of such choices.
I have chosen to return to the classroom, at least for this year, because being with young people enlivens me, gives purpose to the rest of my life.
Others wonder about the 45 miles I drive each way. I am becoming increasingly grateful for the time, because it is an opportunity to truly listen to music, or to truly reflect with few distractions (although as a conscientious driver I do not lose awareness of the traffic around me).
The hospital at which my wife will be for at least another 10 days (counting today) is usually less than a twenty minute drive, and that is without pushing, and includes waiting for traffic lights. I can make it from leaving our back door to being in her room in no more than 25 minutes, often less.
Sometimes sitting in her room as she sleeps I also reflect - on what our life together has meant, on what it means right now.
I have no intimations of impending death, or even of illness.
Nor do I fear that my wife will soon pass away - she is doing well with her illness, and though it may shorten her life and limit some of what she can do, it has been a teacher for both of us.
Life consists of choices. It is an economic situation - how do we decide to apply our not unlimited resources be they of time, money, energy, among the myriad of things that seem to demand our attention and commitment?
I cannot answer that for other people.
I have trouble enough learning how to do it for myself.
But I am finding a principle upon which I can firmly plant myself as I confront the need to make choices.
It is a principle of caritas, of love, of freedom.
It is all of these and more.
It is not so much about how it makes me feel, although that is certainly part of it.
It is about how I connect with others, even if only in my soul and my attitude toward them.
I can be full of righteous anger at an injustice I perceive, and thus feel impelled to speak out (which in my case may be by the words I write online) but it is not anger on my own behalf.
Perhaps that is because I am growing into my Quaker Faith and Practice. For some years I have told my students that while I would not use violence to protect myself I was prepared to kill if necessary to protect them.
And yet - somehow that expression seems incomplete, not fully developed, even as it is largely true.
One of the people I have most admired through reading his words and reflecting upon his life is known to the world as Thomas Merton. It was only as a monk, a contemplative, that Merton, by then Father Louis, became able to truly love and engage with the world.
My anger if it is to be righteous must flow not from hurt, but from love.
Love gives freedom - what I offer can be rejected by others and I cannot take offense, because having giving a gift I no longer c,aim rights of ownership.
I am aging.
In some ways I am becoming more passionate.
But that leads me to be more contemplative.
Sometimes that leads to words, in an imperfect attempt to share the partial understanding I think I have developed.
Sometimes it leads to silence, or even better, real stillness, which then allows me to be open to things I might otherwise never notice.
Here an aging cat is in part my teacher. Lion-El Tiger is 14, arthritic, may have suffered the equivalent of one or more small strokes. He may complain if I pick him up, but of given the opportunity will simply curl up, snuggle, and purr. I learn about love, trust, surrender and responsibility, not as separate things, but as strands of a more complete if yet incompletely understood whole.
So it is with teaching.
So it is with politics.
So it is with living.
I acknowledge that my approach might speak to few here.
For whatever insight of thought or power of words I might seem to have, these are meaningless without a base upon which they can rest, and that is a deep caring for others I may never encounter, because I share with them a common humanity, even if they do not acknowledge it.
Consider it the Quaker idea of answering that of God in the persons we encounter.
I have from time to time recently felt drawn to withdraw from political engagement completely.
I may be more selective in when I act, or about what I write, but these are a necessary part of my remaining connected with the world outside myself, a world for which I am eternally grateful.
I may live 17 days, I may live 17 years, it does not matter.
I can sit as I do now and watch the people around me, grateful for their presence on earth.
I can observe the shenanigans of those willing to impose their ideologies upon others and be angry, but even then learn merely reacting in anger does not help those who are harmed by such ideological impositions.
As a write this, a little girl, here as her mother buys coffee, keeps turning to me and smiling.
That I am open and vulnerable enough that a child so responds to me is a blessing.
It is more.
It is a justification for taking the time to simply be, so that I can learn from others, perhaps totally without conscious effort on my part.
Just as sitting in silence as my wife slept was a blessing, a justification.
Although I do not need to think in terms of justification.
I need to live the words I so offer to others when they choose to seek my advise/counsel/support: be yourself.
It is a Saturday morning.
It is a time of the week at which it is normal for me to reflect and to share that reflection.
Perhaps my thoughts are too disorganized. So be it. So is much of living.
This is not the only time I reflect.
Sometimes I am reflecting even as I must act in some fashion, be it driving, or teaching.
I am reminded that even as IO live in the present, I want to be able to savor it, to continue to learn from it.
My reflection may be a conscious action, as exemplified by my writing this piece.
It may be a reaction - to a smile, a purr, hearing a familiar piece of music in a new way, noticing a tree or a pattern of clouds.
Two notables a few years older than me passed away.
Two long-time friends who were my classmates celebrate birthdays today.
I will grade papers from my students, and as a result ponder how I can better serve as their teacher next week.
I will sit in the hospital room with my wife.
I will live in a present, informed by the past, hoping to enrich a future the results of which may well take shape after I have left the scene.
Teaching has been and continues to be my most important political action.
My reflection and my writing are part of my teaching, especially of myself, as I learn from others and inform my living.
I still do not know what I want to be when I grow up.
But I do know who I want to be - myself.
I am still learning who that is.
As I age, I am becoming more comfortable with that person, flaws and failures included.
As I begin to accept myself, even as I try to address my imperfections, I become more loving towards others, less offended by their imperfections even as I remain capable of outrage when they deliberately or unthinkingly hurt others.
Make of these words what you will. They are a gift freely given
Think of me however you choose.
Thank you for being part of my world, my life.