Category Archives: Reflection
What Was Once the Largest Shopping Center in
Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been
a Pond I Used To Visit Every Summer Afternoon
Loving the earth, seeing what has been done to it,
I grow sharp, I grow cold.
Where will the trilliums go, and the coltsfoot?
Where will the pond lilies go to continue living
their simple, penniless lives, lifting
their faces of gold?
Impossible to believe we need so much
as the world wants us to buy.
I have more clothes, lamps, dishes, paper clips
than I could possibly use before I die.
Oh, I would like to live in an empty house,
with vines for walls, and a carpet of grass.
No planks, no plastic, no fiberglass.
And I suppose sometime I will.
Old and cold I will lie apart
from all this buying and selling, with only
the beautiful earth in my heart.
With Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and all the other cleverly-named days which promote consumer spending behind us, the holiday shopping season is well on its way once again. The lure of irresistible deals and the culture of acquiring the latest fads spur us to accumulate endlessly more and more stuff. I myself have had stuff on my mind lately, though it’s not because of an inclination towards holiday shopping. Rather, ending one out-of-state job recently and preparing to re-locate to another has got me sorting through all my stuff in preparation. And with my parents moving houses in the past few months as well, I’m coming home to all my possessions haphazardly boxed up and scattered about. It’s been a time to re-analyze all that I consider ‘mine.’
As I’ve been sorting through my possessions, I’ve begun to pause and go through them more deliberately. When I’ve been away working my various seasonal jobs, I’ve always kept my possessions to a few duffle bags, or a comfortable car-load at the very most. But, I’ve realized, I have a lot more stuff that I’ve left behind—stuff I own and keep, though I don’t actively use it or even remember I own it. Actually, going through my possessions again, it surprised me the sheer amount of objects I could say are still in my possession—even though I like to think of myself as a minimalist. I always enjoy considering how light a packer I am, and how well I can improvise using the few possessions I do have. But I also know I am a collector of things, a pack-rat as some may call it, and I have acquired a considerable amount during my time on earth. Though I may decry the negative rampages of American imperial consumerism, I too am complicit in the lust and greed to acquire more. I too see things I would like to have, and take steps to ensure that I acquire them and keep them solidly in my possession. The primal urge to accrete does not leave easy.
And now, I’ve found myself in this more reflective situation, as I go through my many possessions box by box. I do tend to be quite utilitarian in my philosophy of things, viewing objects as tools to be used in life, caring mostly about function over form. But even though I concern myself with the practical value of items, I also feel strongly that things should not be treated with careless indignation, as though they were simply disposable without consequence. Utility also means looking to gain the maximum use and value out of every single object I possess, to use and wear things out until they are no more. If each object has a purpose, then each object also has a value. The things I’ve found myself to be holding on to are things that still have some sort of value left—practical, sentimental—and most likely only I could see the value in maintaining these things indefinitely.
As I open each box to rediscover what had been placed inside long ago, I take out each object and cradle it in my hands slowly, reverently. These are merely things, but they connote more than that—they have stories of mine interwoven in them. They have the stories of how I acquired them, of how I used them, and—having made the decision to keep them around—they hold some aspiration for the future as well. Holding each object, I try and recollect as much as I can about it. It may help that I have a particularly detailed memory, but I can often recall when and where I acquired each object, and the circumstances of my acquirement. Everything I find are artifacts of myself, intricately connected to my history of being. I amuse myself by speculating far off into they future, imagining that I have had a long and famous life and that upon my passing my possessions are being sorted by museum staff for a curated display of my life. So many of these objects I hold, rather than having a monetary value, have something much more priceless. Airline boarding passes, concert tickets, maps of places I’ve traveled. Yes, so many of these objects, rather than carrying a practical value, hold an emotional, sentimental value. They are relics of my past, reminding me of where I have been but also hinting at the trajectory I am going down.
Though mindless consumerism disheartens me, I remain quite ambivalent about the acquirement of stuff, on one hand cherishing what I own but on the other hand feeling the imperative to make do with less. Having been of modest means through most of my adult life, my metabolism for objects has been slower than most. Few objects, a minority I would conjecture, I have actually purchased for myself with money. The objects which I do own came from other means: trades and barters, unclaimed remnants of lost and found boxes, things pulled from the trash, participation prizes, gifts from friends. My boxes of things are filled with second-hand clothes, book-exchange finds, and rocks which I have collected during my travels. I am an opportunist in my acquiring of things, and usually it is not the object itself that is important, but the use it presents. So long as the object is useful to me, even if just for memories sake, then I will adopt it into my litany of things.
The fact that I can recall so much information about my history with these objects proves just how much emotional weight these things have on me. For now, I do not find it a burden; I have enough memory space available to justly devote to each object. But as I continue to acquire, and file more and more things into the repository boxes in my parent’s basement, I wonder how long this will still last. You see, whenever I make the decision to adopt an object, I gain the burden of seeing that object to the end of its natural life or re-homing it to another possessor. Once I acquire something too, it is incredibly difficult to part with it, to imagine no longer being in control of it. I am very glad to have avoided the worst of the lures of American consumerism with its throw-away mentality and the lust for more and more. But I also wonder: might I feel freer with less stuff, with more time to devote to this grand organic world which I love?
When I moved from one house to another
there were many things I had no room
for. What does one do? I rented a storage
space. And filled it. Years passed.
Occasionally I went there and looked in,
but nothing happened, not a single
twinge of the heart.
As I grew older the things I cared
about grew fewer, but were more
important. So one day I undid the lock
and called the trash man. He took
I felt like the little donkey when
his burden is finally lifted. Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing — the reason they can fly.
“Though your mind continually searches for order and pattern in the ocean waves, there is none to be found. The ocean is perfectly chaotic and achieves a deep sense of beauty which our minds recognize but are scant to understand” —Paraphrased from an Alan Watts Lecture
At times you may find yourself unsettled: angsty, pensive, unsure, angry. These emotions welling up inside of you need a reprieve, an outlet; they need an environment conducive to processing those feelings. Someplace gloomy, foreboding, immense; somewhere to connect with your mood. In times like these, you seek out water, wherever it may be—the beach, on the ocean or a pond, a raging river or gentle stream. Whatever it is, there is something special inherent about that landscape. Something in its sublime beauty eases the tension in your mind. In these over-bearing alien landscapes, there is solace, solitude. Sitting, strolling, or wandering aimlessly lost along the water’s edge, you can feel a change in your psyche. Your anxious thoughts lessen, your mind begins to process what conflicts you. There by yourself, you begin to delve into your inner being. The landscape you have sought has become your conduit towards introspection.
I am one who seeks the water when anxious. The primal nature of the powerful waves awes me, and I feel small and insignificant compared to their might. The calm reflection on a still pond reaches me too, and my mind is soothed by the gently undulating ripples on the surface. Alone in these environs I can recollect myself, dive deeper into myself, come away with a deeper understanding of myself. The water, I have found, is a prime landscape for self-reflection.
Yet angst and anger—that troubling slew of emotions—is not the sole reason one visits the water’s edge. At other times, you will be experiencing different emotions: tranquil, curious, joyful. In those moments you may not be alone, or even want to be alone. You may be with other people. Regardless, the sheer beauty of the waves and water still works on you and those around you. This environment is different, you can tell. You feel something tangibly distinct here, though you cannot name it. Somehow you feel more at ease, like the water is a trusted friend there to support you in your relations. You can feel yourself opening up to the souls of those around you. Maybe those you are with had been introspecting the same as you, and have now became ready to share these quiet ruminations outside of themselves. Whatever the cause, you begin to open up. The landscape has fostered a window of special extroversion among those you are with.
I have had many deep and meaningful conversations by the water. So too I have had many deeply difficult conversations in similar places. On these occasions, the bond between the people involved was challenged—twisted, wrenched—and yet ultimately deepened. It’s not that meaningful conversations happen exclusively by the water—it’s just that this particular landscape seems to coax it out of me more easily. It seems to coax it out of those I’m with as well. These landscapes serve as a catalyst for our human connection.
Maybe different landscapes serve this same purpose for other people—deserts, mountains, forests—all have some sort of special power to connect us. For me, it is the water that is most impactful. It is a landscape that lends itself both to a powerful introspection yet also opens me up to meaningful relationships with others.
“In such a day, in September or October, Walden is a perfect forest mirror, set round with stones as precious to my eye as if fewer or rarer. Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth.”
On a calm October morning, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” And thus, I went to those particular woods—the ones surrounding Walden Pond—in a sojourn along the path of one of my intellectual forebears, the irascible hermit Henry David Thoreau, to see if I too could eke out the life discoveries which he had made upon the pond’s shores. This unassuming Walden Pond, the site of Thoreau’s most famous personal (and far-reaching) social experiment, lies an hour west of Boston amidst the regional forests and farmland. It is here where the entirety of the dissertation Walden takes place.
My trip was a pilgrimage to visit the namesake pond to visualize the setting of the lengthy tome I had just finished. “The scenery of Walden,” as Thoreau describes it, “is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach the grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore.” Walden is a simple pond indeed. A mere half mile long and only half as wide. Its perimeter is smooth and predictable; few coves or inlets add dimension to its waters. The landscape surrounding the pond, though hilly and thickly forested, does not strike an air of distinction. But as Thoreau championed in his many intellectual ramblings, “Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify!” I could picture Thoreau finding no more an ordinary pond home than this.
Yet at the same time Walden Pond is entirely magnificent. In his personal rhetoric, Thoreau was a fiery exceptionalist, never shy of embellishment or hyperbole. The waters of Walden Pond, he described, were the purist and coldest waters around. He writes about how the quality of Walden’s waters rival the purist known springs. But for his continual exaggerations, he was correct about one superlative; at 102 feet deep, Walden Pond is the deepest inland body of water in the state of Massachusetts. The banks of Walden Pond drop abruptly off into azure oblivion; the water, in this deep watery well, stays cool and refreshing year round.Thoreau knew these depths well, for among his many intermittent occupations, he was a trained land surveyor.
I came to Walden Pond to pay homage to a man who has influenced my own thoughts on life and meaning, if not in words exactly, then by sentiment alone. Intellectually, we share many similar ideas concerning social progress and the higher humanistic yearnings for the species. Thoreau is loud and brash with a pen and passionately rants against the things he disagrees with. His words echo a fiery passion burning deep in his soul. He loathes the nearby railroad and laments material progress for the sake of a dollar. But he also advocates for his better society, seeking to improve the man in the culture; Thoreau preaches continually on freeing mankind from slavery to self and to society. The reclusive Thoreau rants against the ills of contemporary civilization in the mid-18th century and seeks his moral salvation in the woods. Though little appreciated during his own time, and living unwed, unknown, and with his parents until his young demise, Thoreau has become a prophet of the modern day.
Although I feel a tie of kinship to Thoreau, he comes off as a man one would not have wanted to spend time with, myself included. To his village contemporaries, his nature wanderings and isolated hermitage made him appear aloof, yet he was a keen observationist and a scientist at heart, daily making acute observations of the environment and human kind. Though he exquisitely bemoaned the lives of others with his words while simultaneously boosterizing his own noble endeavors—ones that he alone perceived he was discovering in an insipid sea of ignorance—he was quite sociable and gregarious with the right type of company. He lived alone, yet kept three chairs in his house: “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Though Thoreau the man may have been petulant, his ideas are familiar to anyone seeking self-improvement. His writing is at times very off-putting, egotistical, self-righteous, and even shaming and chastising (with way too many verbose phrases strung together with endless commas), yet his heart and ideals were with the people. His goal: to achieve in humankind a fierce independence and self-reliance to live genuinely and whole-heartedly as one’s best self in society.
I can see a bit of myself in Thoreau. I see a bit of myself in his perpetual longings and desires for something greater and nobler in life, Thoreau’s self-described ‘higher laws’. I see myself wanting to live deliberately and intentionally to the fullest extent, where I can ‘suck out all the marrow of life’.
I can also see myself venturing down the path of Thoreau, whether intentionally or by unplanned drift. Simplify, simplify! A one-room shanty seems plenty accommodating to me. Living independently off the land with little money but lots of means—that too I can see. Work, for Thoreau, was never a major priority either. He spent his days in idle employment ranging the forests, the self-appointed ‘inspector of snowstorms’. At its roots, Thoreau’s Walden experiment cuts to the heart of a desire to break away from society and to live a true and unconstrained life, unhindered by the bonds of artificial society. Like Thoreau, the unpretentiousness of nature provides the means of escape to a better existence.
The Walden Pond of today looks different than in Thoreau’s time. Shortly after moving out of the woods, Thoreau’s shanty was relocated to the village of Concord. The forest lands around the shack as well, harvested many times previous to Thoreau’s day, grew thick and dense, obscuring the very foundations of Thoreau’s presence. Thoreau’s expansive bean field, too, has reverted back to forest. The Fitchburg Railway, the rail-line skirting the pond that Thoreau so loudly laments, has been upgraded to a busy commuter line to Boston. The lands surrounding Walden Pond have become protected as a state reserve. No longer the spot of solitude and isolation, Walden Pond has become a popular destination for recreation in Massachusetts, for both its natural beauty and the outdoor recreation aspects.
Do the many visitors to Walden Pond on a sunny day think about the ideas that were developed here? As they sun-bathe on the beach or swim across the cool waters, do they ponder the intellectual history of this place? Do they know the historical significance of this parcel of land where they are picnicking? Is it perhaps that the modern-day visitor to Walden subconsciously accepts Thoreau’s importance of nature without even realizing it? Surely they must have internalized some of Thoreau’s ideas, given the crowds of people who come to spend time finding themselves in nature.
Alas, after paying my pilgrims’ visit to this important site, the time to leave had come. After all, “I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
After spending a summer leading adventure camp trips for teens, I have a perplexing question: are there any hipster children out there?
Being immersed in the experience of a camp counselor for teenagers was an ethnographical experiment. What exactly, constitutes the life and thoughts of these strange creatures, the standard American teenager? My observations led me to an archetypical picture of what makes the average teenager tick; I found a thread of common interests and mannerisms highly influenced by mainstream popular culture. And then I began to think further: was I like that as a teenager? Though I’d like to look back and think that I was unique in my youth, that I was a fiercely independent thinker, I wonder if perhaps this was not the case. Does hipsterdom—that blatant and intentional disdain for all things considered mainstream—emerge later than childhood? And thus, is the dominant teenage culture not a choice of the teenager themselves, but rather a product of the consumerist culture they are bombarded with?
I’ve been pondering over the similarity of certain interests for the teen-aged demographic to which I’ve born witness. With the vast amount of driving campers around which I was required to do this summer, I acquired keen insights into their musical tastes. The music that is sure to please is easy to find; the campers all know the frequency and call letters by heart. The sure crowd-pleasers, the jams that get them all pumped up are the American Top 40 songs on the local pop station. AT40 songs are absolute earworms. Not only are those songs engineered to get stuck in your head and stay there, radio stations will play the same six songs at least once an hour, every hour to ensure that they do. Fortunately, just to keep things fresh every couple months, the old songs will be replaced by a batch of new, similar-enough sounding songs that will be all the craze for the next few months. For me to save my own sanity while driving at camp, I sometimes tried to introduce my underground indie jams from the local community radio stations. Vetoed right away—always. If music is just not similar enough to what they know already, they seem quickly repulsed by the musical difference.
And what about the shopping interests of teenagers? They are fascinated by chain stores and name brands. Driving, as we often do, down the busy suburban commercial strips, the kids will look out the windows with excitement as they shout out the chain-stores they see flying past in the Big-Box landscape. McDonalds, Taco Bell, Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-11, Cumberland Farms. They salivate at the chance to go to those stores and buy their products. Even though the campers haven’t been to this particular location before, they know nonetheless what every store on this commercial strip will offer. The cultural homogeneity of chain-retail stores leads to a predictability about the products each store sells. These teens know what they want—and not only are they entertained by the thought of visiting a chain-store to get it, they are in fact motivated at the chance to spend their money on it. And mostly what they buy is just junk food.
And then there’s the speculation that kids often offer about what profession they would like to do as adults. The teens I was with did have high aspirations; they talked of becoming doctors and lawyers and engineers when they grow up. But, they seldom noted that their motivation was a passion for the job duties or the desire to help others. Instead, the dominant motivation for these high-end jobs was to earn money—lots of it. They talked about how they want high-paying jobs so that they can afford to travel and to own nice things. I was disappointed by how seldom a teen would talk about desiring to enter a profession based on a sheer passion for it, no matter the pay. These teens are far from the hipster stereotype of following their dreams of doing what they love in a career path—even if the consequence for the hipsters is working for minimum wage at a coffee shop in spite of their fancy liberal arts degree.
Was I a hipster teenager? Even as a child, I was fiercely independent and more likely to do my own separate thing rather than follow the crowd. But did my tastes reflect my temperament at that age? Perhaps, but maturing is always a process of becoming. As I grew older, I began to develop some of the interests of hipsterdom: underground music, obscure foods, and a penchant to avoid commercialized mass-produced mainstream culture. Maybe I was a hipster child all along, but it only took a fair amount of time for this attribute to manifest itself in my behaviors.
To be fair to teenagers as a whole, there are a handful of teens who break the mold of the unquestioning follower of consumerist appetites and media-conceived notions of entertainment. There are those teens who loathe American Top 40, preferring instead classic rock or foreign instrumentals. There are teens who not only can pronounce the word ‘quinoa,’ but enjoy eating it as well. There were those teens who weren’t overjoyed at visiting a gas station convenience store to buy candy and soda. There was even a contingent of campers, I found, who were quite interested in learning more about my home-made sprouting jar and eating the ensuing vegetable sprouts. Actually, most of the teenagers at camp exhibited at least some form of cultural independence apart from the mainstream stereotype (albeit some more strongly than others).
But even for the masses of teens leading indistinguishable lives, there is some hope. At the very tip of Cape Cod, away from the influence of mainstream America lies a place distinct from the popular culture known as Provincetown. Though not even remotely a hipster destination, Provincetown is a place and economy that revels in its unique, off-the-cuff identity. During the summer, most trips at camp include a visit to Provincetown. Often it’s a highlight for the campers. In Provincetown, the conventional teens can revel for a spell in a town like no other they’ve been to. There are no big box chains here. Instead, the main Commercial Street becomes a narrow pedestrian mall flooded with people milling about the business district perusing the town’s counter-cultural offerings. Here you’ll find Hippie stores and stores of the Occult. Tucked around the corner is a musty used book store, a palm reader, and a costume shop. Street performers, drag queens, and artists freely roam the streets. Even though in Provincetown the kids will still go for the junk food, at least they’ll buy it from the quirky Donut Experiment or the exclusively pink cupcake store. Maybe in a place unique as Provincetown, that tiny part of us that gets excited by difference can start to peek through. Maybe, after all, there is a little hipster in all of us, even the teenagers.
It should come as no big surprise to say that I am an introvert; by nature, I tend to keep to myself and be a generally private person. But my reservedness and hesitancy to join in on social situations does not equate to a dislike of spending time or sharing my life with others. Quite the opposite I’d say. Since socialization does not come easily to me, I tend to value the connections I’m able to forge all the much more. But as a rather shy and introverted person, forming those connections is often a monumental task. Though privacy is in my nature, it is a very obstinate part of me that is a challenge to overcome in order to know and being known by others.
But in regards to privacy, I’m not so much describing it as a physical need. I can easily do without a high level of physical privacy; I’ve lived with people in very close quarters in the past, and continue to do so unhesitatingly. Sharing bedrooms and bathrooms and kitchens (and maybe even a ship’s hold) is no big deal to me. In fact, I currently live with three others in a giant platform tent. As one could imagine, a tent does not provide much personal privacy from those you share it with; all my personal effects and all my daily actions are on display for my tent-mates to bear witness. Nor is the tent even sealed off from the outside world, as the sheer necessity of ventilation keeps the flaps of the tent open for any gazing eyes. And, since the tent is my living quarters at the place where I work (a camp for children going on summer adventure trips), my daily life is exposed by close contact with many pairs of inquisitive eyes who I must interact with on both a personal and professional level. For all the lack of physical privacy, I’m very comfortable with the lifestyle. Limited privacy is just the unavoidable reality of living in tight quarters.
So when I consider myself a private person, it’s not because I seek out physical privacy to a higher degree than others; more accurately, it’s that I tend to be an emotionally private person. It is difficult to get to know me, and to those I’ve just met I may come off as cold, aloof, or disinterested. Maybe my reserve is a defense mechanism, a way of protecting myself from the perceived judgement of unfamiliar others. In any new social situation, I’m continually testing the waters to see if the temperature is right to expose just a little bit more of my inner self. Even the act of declaring an interest in something is risky for me. Always looking for social approval (and unfortunately, burdened too much by the need for it), I take relations with other people slowly and gradually, building off of the trust garnered from their acceptance. If I don’t perceive a sense of solidarity or acceptance from a group of people when I expose my inner workings, then it’s a hasty retreat back to my own private world. I don’t feel like people need to like the same things as I do; they just need to not make me feel less of a person for it.
As part of my private nature, I don’t put all of myself out on the table all at once. For me, the best is always yet to come, being saved away for when the moment is right. I am always holding something back, always keeping some part of my inner personality hidden and safe. These inner workings may be shared with others when the personal relationship has matured to an appropriate level. But that doesn’t occur until after so much of the hard groundwork of forming a friendship has taken place. I hate the phrase ‘instant friends’. I’ve never become instant friends with anyone. Instead, individuals who talk too much and share too much of themselves immediately are off-putting to me. Few things cause me to retreat into myself quicker than being in situations with many loud outgoing people. In a very social culture such as ours, I’ve found ways to manage my personal reactions in order to join in. In crowded places, I’ll seek out the quiet corners on the periphery. When not feeling a connection with the culture of a group, I’ve mastered the art of the slipping away unnoticed. Even living in close quarters with others, I have a knack for finding out-of-the-way places that are just out of sight. With all these situations, I’m usually lingering around with the hopes of forming connections with people, but am only just waiting for the right conditions to arrive in order to act.
Although it is hard to get to know me, I understand the extreme value of knowing and being known by others. I crave that longing deep desire for meaningful relationships in life, of having a circle around you of those who you can trust. This is as essential to me as food and water—a requirement for my psychological well-being. Though I do not make close friends with many people, the friendships I do forge are unshakeable. Forming new friendships and deepening old ones is essential. But given my shyness, it is also an extremely difficult endeavor.
I’ve found a way to combat my own shyness and reserve, though. Since I am a private person, the basis of my strategy is to structure my life so as to naturally reduce the level of personal privacy in my daily happenings. What I’ve found that breaks down the social barriers is living closely with other people, forgoing traditional ideas of privacy in order to form a communal life. It takes a long time for me to develop comfort around new people, and even so much longer for friendships to form to the level of depth that I desire. The formation of friendships is not by chance and not by chemistry alone, but rather as the result of the long-term accumulation of all the small, insignificant interactions shared between two people. Daily life may not in and of itself provoke the most meaningful interactions, but it does provide the framework for it to take place. I’m bad at small talk, but I’m great at sharing space. Doing so helps break down the barriers I have with getting to be known by others. Every time I interact with someone in a positive way, no matter how small, I begin to develop a deeper sense of trust with that person. The interaction can be as trivial as making breakfast at the same time in the kitchen—it doesn’t even really matter if we are making our own separate meals either—the important part is that I know you’re there with me and accepting of my presence just by being in the room. Seeing others act out their quotidian lives—making food in the kitchen, cleaning the bathroom, reading a book—helps me feel more trustful of them. Those daily interactions, fostered by the lack of personal privacy, form the basis of what is needed for me to open up to others.
It’s not that I don’t trust strangers—it’s just more natural to place confidence in the people I know well instead. Once that level of trust begins being reached in any relationship, then I’ll feel more comfortable offering up more of myself to them. My layers will be peeled back and I’ll begin to share more of my inner thoughts and past experiences, my embarrassments and insecurities as well. For me, my sharings are offered up as a valuable gift. If I don’t feel like these gifts of myself are well-received, then I will become more reserved and less likely to share again in the future. I do not like to talk about myself freely; it is only to those who have shown enough acceptance and fraternity who I feel comfortable enough around. There are only a few people in my life with who I feel I have reached that deep level of personal honesty. To me, being known in that manner is an incredible form of intimacy.
And it’s all so hard to achieve that level of intimacy in private. For me to reach that level, a lack of privacy is often needed. Hence, I enjoy (and probably require) living with people so closely, and it’s why I find it so beneficial to put myself in situations where there is a lack of physical privacy. With less physical privacy, the inner-lives of those around you (and yours as well) cannot be so well hidden. Those who I know best are the ones whom I’ve shared situations where personal privacy was lacking—roommates, housemates, camping buddies. I’ve also found that being in compromising situations—in the right circumstances—also helps friendships to grow rather quickly. Since I desire and yearn for being known both emotionally and intellectually, yet I am so shy and reserved, I have found that I require this lack of physical privacy to boost me along in my relationships. Otherwise, I’ve found, it takes years for such a deep level of friendship to develop—if it ever develops at all. So, I’ll gladly take the trade-off of having limited physical privacy. I don’t need that much of it anyway—especially when what is gained in return is being known at a deeper interpersonal level.
It all changed after a series of bad days. Especially after one particularly tough day where I ended up reaching a turning point. It started, innocently enough, in a kindergarten classroom. Within the first 20 minutes of class, one troublesome boy raised both his middle fingers and yelled ‘fuck you’ to a classmate. Accepting his correction, but not changing his behavior, he continued to harass and hit other students throughout the morning. Later on, a tardy student walked into the class, promptly stealing some chapstick from another student. After refusing to correct her actions and to make amends with that student, she became defiant. “Make me, motherfuckin’ bitches,” she called out as she ran around the room, “Go ahead—call the principle. She’s a bitch!”
The afternoon, unfortunately, got worse. Instead of kindergarten, I was switched to a second-grade classroom. Older kids did not mean more mature behavior. Instead, when the students came in from lunch recess, they immediately proceeded to physically fight with one another. One student raised a chair above his head and threatened to throw it. The principle had to be summoned—the quarrelling students had to be removed. While waiting for backup to arrive, I held the most intent student back by the shoulders. He had been insulted by another student and was now deadest on pummeling him. I got down on the student’s level to reason with him. He made no eye contact, he spoke nothing. All I could see was the glazed, glowering expression of a young boy narrowly focused on physical atonement on those who he felt had wronged him.
Both classrooms ended in chaos. That school was not a safe learning environment. It was a place where physical and emotional violence was dripping at the seams. Driving home that day, I reflected on what I had just experienced. It was a lot to process. Once back to the safety inside my house, I plopped down on a chair in the living room. A visceral sense of relief finally settled over me. As I debriefed my day with my housemate, my body started to physically tremble, sympathetically, autonomically. While at school, my adrenaline was flowing in the moment as my attention was focused on the extreme behavioral challenges in the classroom. Once fully removed from the situation, my body was left quaking from the trauma of the day.
That was the turning point for me. At my third week of substitute teaching, I came to a crossroads. It was either get tough or get out. I knew I couldn’t continue in the teaching position with my idealistic attitudes of kindness and compassion. So I got tough. Instead of focusing on nurturing the development of the students, it became more imperative just to control them. It was an unfortunate reality, but this change of focus was a move for my own survival as a teacher. The situation had devolved to a point where basic jungle survival instincts kicked in.
As an idealist, I came into the job soft and compassionate, motivated by the belief that I could make a profound impact upon the youth. I wanted to look favorably upon children as kind and innocent. I wanted to run the classroom with fairness and generosity, giving the students the benefit of the doubt in all situations. Fundamentally, I wanted to foster holistic personal growth in the students—all within the short day-long duration of my stints as a sub.
Instead, I shockingly found what could become a very corrosive environment inside the classroom. These kids don’t know you, and they don’t respect you because of it. They aren’t of the upbringing where they learned to respectfully listen and obey adults or authority. To them, you are a stranger with no weight or consequence to their lives. They see you and think they don’t have to follow because “Man, I don’t even know you,” or “You’re not a real teacher.” The relationship I developed with the students never reached my idealized version of youth mentorship; instead, what organically developed was a predicament of antagonistic adversaries. As a substitute, you have to be stern and assert your authority, lest you quickly lose control of the class. You budge an inch, the kids take a mile. Eventually, you begin to develop the mentality of a prison guard controlling your wards. Your task as a sub is to force your prisoners to follow the lesson plans no matter how much they try to derail your efforts.
In the end, I became a much more callous person. My patience shortened. Authority and control became my goals—not out of a desire for control itself, but out of sheer necessity. Each morning, I had to prepare for battle with the mindset that these kids are out to tear me down. In a behaviorally troublesome classroom, I had to enter drill sergeant mode quite frequently, barking the students into a terrified submission. Often, I had to publicly shame certain students in front of the classroom just to make an example of them. Teaching was not an uplifting experience—for me or for the students.
For all those reasons, I had to quit being a substitute teacher. The person I feel that I am and the person I feel like I want to be did not line up with who I was becoming as a substitute. So I had to quit while I was ahead, before my integrity became corrupted by the corrosive classroom environment. I honestly enjoy working with children, but how did teaching become a position where children are viewed as the enemy? I’m not that kind of person. I don’t want to be that kind of person. But I am as much a product of my environment, and those toxic classrooms created a menace in me. I never wanted to yell at kids. I didn’t enter education to yell at children. But nevertheless I found myself slipping into the mire of the circumstances.
More than anything else, I was appalled by what I witnessed as the toxic learning environments that predominated in many school classrooms. It started with a culture of disrespect for the teacher and for the learning process, then broadened to include a disrespect for any students interested in learning. In my classrooms, there were numerous fights and countless episodes of crying. There were times where I as a teacher did not feel safe in the classroom. No doubt that my students, young and vulnerable as they are, felt any safer. Instead of becoming an opportunity for inquiry, learning became the punishment for misbehavior. How, then, can you expect anyone to value or invest in the educational process? Thus, I had to remove myself from the situation once I felt myself contributing to the culture of school as a penal system.
In stark contrast, life was much easier in the suburbs. I found I could be more relaxed and compassionate towards the students, reaching closer to my idealized vision of classroom flourishing. Instead of being a punisher and enforcer, I could be a friend, mentor, and teacher. But even though the suburbs are easier, I couldn’t allow myself to stay there. I could never feel right about selling out to the suburban school districts and contributing to the flight that attracts resources away from the already under-resourced districts. I felt it more important to be in the urban school districts where the behavioral issues were most pressing and the impact of a teacher is most needed. But I also found that I couldn’t survive there—at least, I found I couldn’t survive there while being the type of person I was striving to be. Being in the inner-city classroom for too long reverts one back to primitive survival instincts. Values like kindness and compassion take a backseat when your main goal becomes surviving the day.
I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions for 2016. I haven’t started on New Year’s resolutions for 2017 either. Although I sometimes I do make resolutions for myself, it’s far from an annual tradition; whatever goals I do make tend to be more abstract and less definable in regards to their accomplishment. Previous resolutions of mine have included ‘being more spontaneous’ and ‘defying societal expectations’. To that extent, I have been slack in thinking of lofty goals for the upcoming year.
When midnight comes tonight, time will continue to pass just as it always has (disregarding the added leap second, necessarily). The infinite clock of universal time takes no notice of our mere Gregorian calendar and its arbitrary initiation of a new year. But for what tonight lacks in realness, it makes up greatly with symbolism—scribbling down a different digit when writing out the date could just be the needed break that some need to feel emboldened to make a change in their lives. Or, for those more cynical, waiting until the New Year is a great excuse to put off difficult change until later.
For me, I aim to live a life of continual improvement and thus don’t often use the method of making resolutions for a certain date in time. If change is to be had, ideally it should happen as soon as it is possible. Still, over the course of a year we do tend to stray from our ideals, and the prospect of a new calendar offers the chance to pause and reevaluate what kind of person we are and if that aligns with who we desire to be. If we’ve run astray of our intentions, the New Year might just be the catalyst to prompt the change.
But instead of focusing more on changes to come on the eve of 2017, I’d rather focus on what the outgoing year brought. Admittedly, I’d say 2016 was not my best year ever. The first half of the year saw the unraveling of my Australian adventure and with it the confidence that many of my ideas are not foolproof. Back at home, the health of some family members began to dramatically decline. Additionally, the downward spiral of American politics and the direction of the national discourse did not help in giving 2016 a good aura.
But 2016 had its peaks as well. For starters, I ended up traveling quite a lot, and to many new places. I also had the opportunity to try out a couple of jobs I’ve always wanted to try—leading outdoor trips and working on a wooden sailboat. This year was the one where I finally got a good taste of long-distance bike-riding and found I want even more of it. I even kept up my blog through the whole year. These experiences I’ve had, and many more, will be rooted in the year 2016; I’m grateful for 2016 because they happened.
And through it all, I’m grateful that I’m still well-adjusted and here to appreciate what happened. Making it to another year is not a given—it’s a gift and should be celebrated as such. Making it in good health and in good spirits is another thing to celebrate.
Thinking ahead to 2017, I don’t have many goals of what to do. Unlike 2016, 2017 will be less of a mystery upfront—I do, after all, already have my next two jobs lined up through October. I know I’ll be substitute teaching for a bit in Michigan before doing more environmental education in Massachusetts. The greater challenge of this New Year is instead what to be. Am I the kind of person I want to be? If I met myself as a stranger, would I want to interact with this person?
For me, the less frenetic pace of change upcoming in 2017 may lead to some more time for introspection than 2016 allowed for. A less uncertain lifestyle may also lead to the development of habits—either good or bad. Among habits, I’d love to meditate and do yoga more regularly. And 2017 will also present the challenges of existing within the changing context of our society. I foresee 2017 presenting challenges for tolerance and openness in civic life. As we look to our goals for the New Year, we can all look to ourselves and ask if we are the kind and generous and accepting people we would like to be; we can make a resolution to defy prejudice and stamp out hate.
Here’s to a better 2017
Happy New Year!
On my last day in New York City, I made sure to venture to Manhattan’s downtown financial district on a pilgrimage to Ground Zero—the site of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It’s been over fifteen years now since that fateful September morning, but I can still recall witnessing the events live on television. The attacks of that day shook America and signaled the beginning of a different era. The events that took place in those city blocks in lower Manhattan are likely to be the defining event of my generation’s lifetime. I had to visit.
As I walked south to the 9/11 memorial, I stopped at a small park between Broadway and Greenwich Streets. Here, in this small triangle of land, an office building once stood that was destroyed in the attacks. Having already taken my first glimpses of the immense Freedom Tower and the other hi-rise redevelopments along the way, I stopped in the park to have lunch. The scene I witnessed at the park was something that could have come nearly anywhere out of New York City. People in business casual rushed about, tourists ambled around cameras in hand, stop-and-go traffic rolled by.
My attention was drawn to a group of students eating lunch in the park. The students were young, maybe fourth grade, but around the same age I was when the attacks happened. These students sat energetically on the benches, chatting and frolicking as they ate the way you’d expect any group of elementary students to do. The gravity which I felt at visiting the memorial was not shared by these students. Theirs was a normal day—better yet, a field trip day to be excited about.
When I was an 11 year-old fifth grader in 2001, I could sense the seriousness of the situation that was unfolding. I was old enough to know that a national tragedy was in progress. I could know enough that this day more so than others would shape the character of the future.
Yet do the grade-schoolers in the triangular park know what that day had changed? Their entire lives have occurred after that day. Have they grown up knowing that there was ever anything different?
Then I thought about what September 11 had changed for me. I was a child then. I did not know the world as I know it now. But I can tell that our culture has shifted to place a much higher value on security than freedom. Visiting the 9/11 Museum, I expected nothing less than a full security screening—symbolic of how our standard cultural expectations of what’s acceptable have changed. But I don’t expect such intense security measures to get into the visitor center of the Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston. Fifteen years later and our culture still clings to quixotic measures of security. As a culture, we’ve taken a default of viewing people as a threat. On that September day, a part of our liberty died that has never recovered.
As I continued to eat my lunch in the park, I kept thinking of those students. The normalcy of their interactions struck me. Their daily life didn’t seem much to be directly affected by the attacks. Elsewhere, the resilient people of New York have recovered and continue hurriedly about their business. Ground Zero, once devastated, has been rebuilt with gleaming towers beaming into the sky. Large promotional posters gawk about the experience of going up to the observatory at the top of the Freedom Tower. The cultural and economic powerhouse that is New York City lets no opportunity for commerce go to waste due to an air of sentimentality. The hum of city life honors the living while the nearby memorial pays tribute to the dead.
The dark cloud lingering over the national election is passing, but even darker clouds loom on the late-January horizon. The future of the nation seems to be a spiral of uncertainty. Gains in social progress and human rights hard-fought for over the decades seem to be at risk to an ideology of fear and distrust. How could America stoop so low to have this happen?
It’s easy to get cynical about national elections. Being registered to vote in a deeply red state (Idaho), I knew a vote either way wouldn’t change the national outcome. The Electoral College masks the voice of the people, instead turning the power of the popular vote into a pundit’s game. But with extra hope for democracy, I made sure to cast my absentee ballot. In the end, my suspicions were proven; my presidential vote far from mattered, with the winning candidate leading by 31 percentage points in my state regardless.
I watched the outcome on election night with my shipmates in New York, hovering over a smartphone below decks as the results trickled in. Hopes for a promising outcome were initially high. An air of disbelief gradually set in as key states on the east coast began to turn solidly red. Optimism gradually dampened. Late into the night, the tone turned somber and morose as the reality of the outcome sunk in.
There would have been no other place I’d rather be to watch the results than on the Clearwater. The ship is meant to be a safe place. It is meant to be an inclusive community, free from the hate and bigotry that have marred recent national politics. Individuals from all walks of life find themselves aboard the Clearwater. Whether you like the people you end up around on the ship often becomes irrelevant when you must cooperate with each other to form a functioning environment (though I’d say we really do actually like each other aboard the Clearwater). We’re all we have on the ship; we have to look out and take care of each other no matter who we may be.
I wish the ship could serve as a model for how our nation ought to operate. America is a vast mosaic of cultures and ideas and values that has been functioning continuously for over 260 years. The social narrative of this nation has been one of gradually recognizing that the inalienable rights originally granted in the Constitution are inherent to every human being—rights for women, ethnic minorities, indigenous people, religious groups, refugees, gender identities, sexual orientations, disabilities, immigrants, the impoverished and beyond. At the large national scale, it’s easy to become afraid of those groups of people who are different than you. We preferentially segregate ourselves to be with others similar to us. The outsiders—they are unknown, impersonal, different. They might try and change our comfortable status quo, we reason. When relations with the alien other remain impersonal, it’s easy to slip into stereotyping and generalizing fear and distrust. But if instead we were to know our neighbors—to actually learn who we are in community with—how different could things be? In the words of Clearwater’s founder Pete Seeger, “I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.” If only our nation could behave like a small village, knowing and understanding our neighbors, then maybe cooperation and compassion could win out over fear.
Personally, I’d hate to slip into the cynicism that I have no control in how the nation goes. We’re the second largest democracy in the world, holder of the largest worldwide economy, and home to 320 million people. America is an immense nation; an individual can easily feel overwhelmed by changes in national politics. But the future of our society, I believe, must be won at the level of the individual. Grassroots efforts at change in this nation have and will continue to bubble up and will ultimately succeed in crafting a society of equality and fraternity. These efforts will face many setbacks along the way. But keep on. Don’t get disheartened. As grassroots activist Pete Seeger believed, “the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” Though cynical about politics on a national and even a state level, I know voting still remains a fundamental act of resistance. Be part of your community. Go and vote in local elections.
The people’s voice may not have been heard this time, but we will be heard in the future. In the meantime, there is work to be done in the village. Bigotry and hate start locally, even within oneself. This must be stamped out. But it won’t be easy.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago