Resolution: resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
This is my second round with this Franklinian virtue, and it’s more difficult than my first go at it thirteen weeks ago. The time of year makes it difficult: April and May are the months when my mistakes as a teacher are made plain. The end of the year looms, as do the high-stakes tests and the concerns about the future. Almost no one is present in the moment – there’s too much left to be done and not nearly enough time to do it. Students are most needy in the spring. Some are concerned with grades. Others are overwhelmed preparing to move to another city, country, and school. A few are learning that their psycho-social issues are not just phases and need to be dealt with directly. When plans are made for this time of year back in the fall, there’s rarely an accounting for how emotionally taut the school climate is in the spring.
Amidst this swirling and second-guessing that is typical in Semester 2, tragedy emerged. One of my colleagues lost a long battle with cancer last weekend. She’d been on leave since December. She was intensely private; she did not want people to see her suffer. I didn’t know her well, but she mattered to the students, parents, and other teachers in this community. She fought hard to live, and then let go when it was time. The empty space she left is noticeable, and my school officials made space in the school day to memorialize her on Monday, and again on Wednesday as they delayed the beginning of classes three hours so community members could attend her funeral ceremony. I have never been in a community that has made such clear gestures about what matters in a time such as this.
The Hindu image of the vessel has emerged several times this week. One of the beliefs handed down from the Bhagavad Gita, which perhaps the most important sacred Hindu text, is that the human body serves as a carrier of life force. My colleague, for example, literally carried life from her mother to her daughter. It was also apparent that she metaphorically carried life force to her students and the families she engaged with over the twelve years she worked at my school. She mattered to a lot people; she left her mark on others by filling them with knowledge, inspiration, and pride in their own work. Vessels are more fragile, though, than the contents they carry, and when she recognized that her body had become too ravaged from her illness to continue she finally accepted that with the grace with which she lived.
One of the silly things that we adults in the privileged world do to our young people is suggest – so often that we all start to believe it – that we can just decide what we will do with our lives. Implicit in our messaging is the fiction that if we have enough will power we can create the things we want, just as we want them. The reality, as I see it, is that this world view leaves no space for this thing called life, which can include suffering and setbacks that severely alter our priorities and our course. It doesn’t take into account the quality of our own vessel, nor the preciousness of the contents inside it. AP tests start next week, IB exams follow, and seniors have their final assessments the week after. Then come Finals for the rest of the students. All of this “matters” to the machines of college and the future. But none of it matters as much as making space to acknowledge that these things we are studying – arts and letters, sciences and mathematics – are only creations to help us make sense of both the vessel and the life force. It pains me, for example, that I feel pressure to use every moment of limited time in our last day together with my AP students to prep them for The Test, when what feels right is to read some of the wonderful pieces of literature devoted to understanding what happens when this all ends, and how death affects the living. The right thing to do is clear to me, but this is a data-driven world now, and months from now the scores for my students will stand on their own. Perhaps I’ll be judged by those scores, perhaps not. Perhaps my students will get to explain why they were so distracted during exam week, but I doubt it. It may take them years to realize that these tests are a fiction that don’t matter, at least not nearly as much as learning to live, which is what my departed colleague manifested better than anything else.
I didn’t know Indrani well, but I miss her.
So back to Resolution and performing “what I ought.” More time thinking about the vessel. Fewer assessments.
I have an intense memory of my first night driving my first car. My aunt gave me a beat up, thirteen year old VW Rabbit that had practically no resale value when I got it. The odometer was stuck at 89,963 miles. It ran on diesel, and it was loud as all get out. I often set off car alarms if I drove too close to the nicer vehicles that were parked on the street in my neighborhood on my way to school. The Beast and I spent a lot of time together, starting just before my 17th birthday when I got it.
The first night I had The Beast, I showed up at my best friend’s house to pick him up for some low-speed joy-riding. He grabbed two-handfuls of Red Vines from the Costco-sized tub in the kitchen at his house, and off we went. We cruised over to another friend’s house, and the three of us, listening to a cassette of Bob Marley, drove around one of the extensive tracked-housing developments near where we went to junior high school. For a time that night, everything in the world was perfect.
21 years later, my best friend, Matt, showed up in India, and we set off on a new vehicular adventure. This road trip took us through south India — and is as far from that night with Red Vines and Bob Marley in 1993 as we could get without leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. We loaded into The Duchess, my current diesel-powered workhorse of a vehicle, and set off on Indian roads to reach the end of the country. Our goal was to drive to the southern-most tip of the country, where three bodies of water — the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean — come together. Fittingly, Bob Marley’s music inaugurated our first day of driving.
Matt arrived here just after the eight-month anniversary of my arrival in Chennai. He’s my first visitor. I’d heard others here talk about the significance of your first visitor, but I hadn’t thought about it much. Then I saw him walk through the doors at the airport when arrived. It was both familiar, like, “oh, hey Matt,” and remarkable, as in, “holy shit, Matt just walked out of the airport in Chennai to visit me!” What I get now is your first visitor is a huge deal, and it is appropriate that Matt was the first to visit me here.
One of the things that makes Matt great is that he’s someone who Shows Up. He has a long record of this, as his wife, his friends, his family can attest. He downplays this part of himself a bit — it’s not a big deal, that’s just how he’s wired, he’d say — but those of us who know him recognize that to show up like he does requires thoughtfulness and decision-making which few people possess. He’s really good at it — this is his super power.
We drove nearly 1200 miles from Chennai to Kanyakumari and back, along “highways” that were three-lanes wide in some places, but later would reduce to dirt roads at times. There was literally a part of “National Highway – 7” where we crossed a dry river bed (thank goodness there was no monsoon this year) that was around half a mile wide. We needed each other for this — I needed him to navigate; he needed me to drive, and it worked out perfectly. For five days in a row, in the second-most populated country in the world, we saw no westerners (save one American woman who was running one of the hotels we visited). We drove through dusty villages, major urban centers, rice paddies, plantations of coconut trees and banana trees, fisheries, a nature sanctuary, and wind farms. At our terminous, we gazed out at the beginning of a hemisphere of water that extends south of India and continues all the way to Antarctica. It was empowering to drive there, and the view of such an expanse of water was like looking into the Grand Canyon — I felt very humbled in that space.
The last time Matt and I spent this kind of time together — eight days in a row — we were in high school. I posted to Facebook that there will be a time in our lives, perhaps in another 21 years, when we talk about that time we road-tripped through southern India together. When I wrote that post I was a little flippant. There’s gravity to that feeling now, and while I know that the experience we had together — including all the things we talked about, the advice we gave each other, the old things we laughed about, the new things we puzzled out together, the close-calls on the road, and the glee each of us felt upon reaching our destination — will mean different things to me with time and reflection, I feel intense gratitude to him and for the incredible power of Showing Up.
Matt showed up. In India! And neither of us will never be the same again. நன்றி!