The events of this week have left me disoriented, disconcerted, rough around the edges. Three nights in a row I slept soundly – which surprises me given how I have been spinning like a top — yet three mornings in a row I have awoken feeling as though I haven’t slept a wink. My gut is off. I keep thinking I see things out of the corner of my eye – movements on the periphery of my vision. I have been hyper-sensitive, even almost taking things personally that have nothing to do with me. I keep wondering when the other shoe will drop and what the other shoe will be and where it will drop.
The subject matter of texts between my daughter and me over the past few days represents the wild range of reality this week: The bombing at the Boston Marathon. Her first real date – she’s been invited to prom (her date gave her flowers and chocolate as part of his invitation to her.). Her preparations for the three-day State speech and debate tournament. The shooting at MIT and its aftermath. For Isobel and her friends, the world is terribly exciting and terrifically scary right now.
I’ve tried to write about the various events of this week but either I have too many words spilling out of me that don’t even make much sense and probably shouldn’t see the light of day yet, or, I feel like I am beyond or before words.
So, in recognition of the events of this week I thought I might post here an essay I wrote in 2011 in the aftermath of the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan as the stuff I was trying to work out in the essay, called 3.13.11/No-sense, is the stuff I’m still trying to work out (and probably will still be trying to work out for the rest of my travels through my life course.).
Lately, I’ve been haunted by a particular line from Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Layers,” and by my comrade Sara, who died in November of 2006. I’ll save my story of Sara for another time. The line from Kunitz captures the question that seems to be at the center of everything that’s happened this past week: “How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?” Change and loss; every minute, somewhere on the Earth, someone is hurting, suffering, letting go, or holding on for dear life, running for the hills looking for safety.
The events of a particular week in March of 2011 – events large and small, local and global – hit me particularly hard because I went through the week sober. By which I don’t mean to imply that I usually go through the week drunk. It’s just that right now there is work I need to do, work I want to do – must do – that requires that I have my wits about me, that my edges are sharp and unsoftened by a nice glass of wine (or two) at the end of the day, that my capacities for awareness and lucidity are as expansive as possible. Do you know what I mean?
So, the events of the particular week in March I’m writing about.
One of my students asked for help so she could plan her schedule of courses around her chemotherapy schedule. Another student wanted to let me know that they may miss a couple of sessions in some of their courses because they will be flying home to take care of their partner, who has just been diagnosed with stage-four terminal lung cancer. Another couple of students have missed a lot of school work because they have older adult parents who have dementia or other serious, life-altering circumstances to manage. I just met a new student who is a single parent of two special needs children. And just last weekend, there was a memorial service – the second one this term – for a student who died an unexpected, sad death. My colleagues at my university and I talk all the time about the delicate balance of our adult students’ lives (and our own lives, as well!) – work, family, education, service, self-care – but how do we help them, help each other, create and maintain their delicate life-balance when we are facing the immediate, cataclysmic matter of our or our loved one’s very existence?
You asked the right question, Stanley Kunitz: “How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses”?
During the week I’m writing about, I was reminded at all levels of reality – from the cellular to the geophysical – what I already know but so often forget unless I make it a devotion to remember it: I am a little creature living in an emerging universe on an ever-shifting and changing planet; sometimes the ground I stand on seems solid and stable, and sometimes it shakes and threatens to swallow me whole. I can tell stories of the past, I can cast my mind into and plan for a future I may not actually experience, but I can only ever triumph in the present by embracing courageously whatever happens as best I can (which sometimes means being sober and lucid, sometimes means having an extra glass of wine, sometimes means skipping in the park, sometimes means writing until my eyeballs fall out of my head, and sometimes it means taking to my bed for the day.).
Do you know what I mean?
The newspaper told me that because of the strong earthquake in Japan, the Earth’s axis may have shifted by about 3.937 inches: “…earthquakes can involve shifting hundreds of kilometers of rock by several meters, changing the distribution of mass on the planet. This affects the Earth’s rotation.”
My first question, after experiencing complete amazement about this fact, was: How does the shift in the Earth’s axis affect the creatures living on the Earth’s surfaces, in its waters? And: What reverberations does such a geophysical shift have for human consciousness?
In addition to the axis-shifting, it seems that time shifts as well, as a result of the Earth’s rotation speed increasing in the aftermath of the quake. The newspaper tells me I won’t really notice it, because it is only a difference of 1.6 micro seconds. But if you think about all of the major, massive earthquakes that have transpired in the past 111 years, wouldn’t those microseconds add up?
What does all of this mean? We may not notice these changes, whatever “notice” means here, in our conscious minds as we may not have developed (or remembered) the sensitivities required to do so, but how can these changes not affect us and all other living creatures on this planet?
Disasters, whether “natural” or “human caused,” have the potential to arrest our attention away from the local and personal and onto the global and transpersonal.  Catastrophes on a grand scale, crises on a personal and interpersonal scale, have in common that they can close us down or open us up (sometimes both!). They jar us, shake us up, and remind us of the deeper reality in which we live – which is temporal, provisional, vulnerable, impermanent, changeable– and invite us to live our lives as fully, richly, and audaciously as we can, committed to all that is most important to us, rejoicing in our great good fortune that at least for the time being the ground beneath our feet is solid, stable. Do you know what I mean?
Disasters, catastrophes that happen to others, which we witness from some distance as onlookers or by-standers, can be opportunities for enlarging our sensitivities, our capacities for empathy and compassion. I think of Salman Rushdie’s essay, “Step Across this Line,” in which he entreats the reader to examine how the lines that we draw, the boundaries and borders we create and erect to keep some people in and some people out, are constructions: made by humans during particular times, in particular places, in responses to particular forces. And, thus – good news!—these lines can be unmade and remade, as well. “Step across this line,” he invites me, he challenges me – disrupt closing down, resist separation and isolation, reconnect across differences, embrace complexity, behold reality face-on, even when reality sucks.
Catastrophes, tragedies that happen to others can also give us moments of temporary amnesia – the good kind – in which we forget what the fight was about that caused us to not see or talk to each other for awhile, and in forgetting, we remember that we are actually all kin, all of us traveling through the life course together on this magnificent planet with its shifting axis and inconsistent speed.
In addition to wondering how it is that we can withstand so much loss, I also wonder what happens next. What happens when we have these feelings of kinship, when we forget to separate ourselves from others and in forgetting start remembering really important stuff? What happens? Do we witness? Do we stand-by? Or do we step across the line and reach out?
After waking up to the news of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the reverberations across the Pacific Ocean, Happy and I took a walk around our park. As we approached the north-east bend of the pond I saw sitting upon the shore a pair of grebes. Grebes aren’t ducks, so don’t make the mistake I made for years of mixing them up.
Ducks, geese, and swans belong to the same family. But grebes are their own family entirely, and there are seven species and four genera of grebes. Nonetheless, it is important to note that ducks, geese, swans AND grebes all belong to the same class: Aves, e.g. Birds. But back to Grebes, which are amongst the smallest waterfowl at my park and thus are sometimes hard to spot, but when you do spot them amongst the other members of the Aves class, even if you don’t know they are properly called a grebe, you will know you are seeing something not quite ordinary (not that ducks, etc. are ordinary.). I’ve always found the grebes to be more formal and fancy, all dressed up for their time at the pond—splendid forehead plumes, solid patches of saturated colors marking their heads, lovely curved necks, and short, delicately pointed bills. I always look for them (and I wonder sometimes if they ever look for me?), because spotting them causes butterflies in my chest, which I enjoy feeling.
So, I stood on the path, Happy at the end of the leash, and watched the grebe-couple for a bit. As we watched the two handsome grebes, male and female, my attention was suddenly pulled away toward a commotion, great splashing and squawking and carrying-on in another part of the pond. It took me a few beats before I realized what was actually happening—five or six male mallard ducks were holding one female mallard duck under the water. She kept trying to fight her way up for air, but each time she did so, a couple of the male ducks would grab her by the neck with their bills and push her head back under the water’s surface. She was fighting so hard, she was ferocious, but she was outnumbered.
Let me admit that I am no innocent bystander. I don’t — actually can’t – stand by, never have been able to, not since the time I was a little girl. This uncontrollable impulse to intervene has gotten me into a lot of trouble, but it has also gotten a few others out of a lot of trouble. Any way, quite possibly the mallards were engaged in some sort of mating ritual, or perhaps a disciplinary procedure of some sort. Maybe what the males were doing to the female was part of some intra-species agreement that evolved over time which my non-Aves consciousness (and untrained ornithologist mind) has no capacity to understand. All I could do was to observe. And wonder what the hell to do. I wanted to exercise cross-creature cultural competence, I didn’t want to throw my human weight around, but standing there, watching this thrashing, screeching tornado of ducks, I couldn’t innocently stand-by – I had to step across the line.
First, I tried reasoning with the mallards. I stood on the shore and yelled, “Hey, you ducks stop that!” They ignored me.
Then, I tried poking the ducks with a long stick when they spun closer to the shore. This was an ill-conceived strategy, as they never got close enough to the stick and I didn’t feel quite right about poking them, so instead I used the stick to make a big splash in the water. The ducks ignored me.
Then I turned to Happy and asked him for help. I yelled, “Happy, you gotta do something!” Fortunately, he was already a bit worked up, since I was so worked up, stumbling along the shore of the pond, waving a stick, trying to reason with the ducks. So, I let him have as much leash as I could without letting him go, and he ran a bit into the water, barking, which spooked the gang of mallards enough that they disbanded temporarily and the she-duck was able to escape. But, alas, she didn’t get far, she experienced but a momentary respite, as the guys followed her and this confusing drama began anew.
I realized only then that I couldn’t actually do anything. I also wondered if I even should have been trying to do something, if it even made any sense to intervene in the affairs of other creatures, if I even had a right to do so. I was acting from a place beyond thinking, I was in the throes of feeling a deep kinship with the mallards: for the female, because from my viewpoint she was being victimized; and the males, as well, because – and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this – I wanted those guys to behave better! My actions were probably very misguided, prideful in the way only we humans can be, but there you go. This is exactly how I felt, exactly what I did.
In the aftermath, as Happy and I left the scene and headed home, I reflected upon the few times in my life when a non-human creature had intervened on my behalf, when I was in danger, real danger or the appearance of danger. I remembered various family dogs having helped me, Marlowe most of all, and remembering this made me feel better about my decision to try to come to the aid of the she-mallard. Now, as I write this, I also recall the first essay in Barbara Kingsolver’s collection, Small wonder, in which she recounts the verified story of a mama bear who took care of a little human toddler when he became separated from his family. I also think of a passage from Skolimowski, and am somewhat comforted. He wrote, “Men can be arrogant creatures, but so can lions. However, among all creatures it is we, human beings, that can understand fully and completely the meaning of compassion and can act on it; can take the responsibility for all, can defend the rights of species different from our own.” I’m not sure if we humans are the only creatures who can do so, but I do know that we humans are creatures who, indeed, do do so.
Reflecting further on my experience with the ducks, which happened to happen on the morning after the earthquake in Japan, and which took place before my encounter with one of my students who had such monumental and tragic news to share with me about her partner who is dying – and the poignancy of their geographic distance and emotional closeness – I realize that all of these stories I’m telling are pointing to the same few strong ideas: interconnection and creaturely-kinship; deep participation in each others’ lives and in the weird world that we live in; the instability, alterability, and flux-ness of everything, and by “everything,” I mean from the micro-cosmic chaotic duck pond, to the macro-cosmic axis-shifting Earth, and everything in between.
In an instant, the ground beneath our feet shakes and shifts, waves swell and crash, buildings sway and topple. Some lives end and some are spared but forever altered.
Citizens of the world watch what happens: earthquake, tsunami, revolution, famine, hurricane, genocide, war, corruption, violence, environmental devastation. Many cry and yearn to help, desire to not only bear witness and stand-by, but to step across the lines that separate us from each other, to support their Earth-kin to re-establish a sense of safety and stability on an ever-changing planet, in an ever-emerging universe. The words of Kunitz echo again: “In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: ‘Live in the layers, not on the litter.’
I have a small wonderment: Can we keep these rekindled feelings of kinship with other humans, other creatures, and willingness to boundary-cross as needed at the center of our hearts and the front of our minds once whatever the current catastrophe is has passed?
Do you know what I mean?
What is your tolerance for no-sense?
What is your habitual response to being faced with situations or experiences that seem to make no sense and about which you want to – are desperate to—make sense?
I ask these questions as much of myself as I do of you, because I’ve found myself staring into the face of no-sense over and over during these past several weeks of earthquakes, tsunamis and people’s revolutions. These past few weeks of students, friends, family members falling seriously – terminally—ill, facing staggering life-changes, lying awake all night scared out of their wits.
Also, I ask these questions because I’m almost at the end of grading my students’ work for the winter term 2011 courses we engaged in together. I find myself rejoicing at the profundity of what each of them, to a student, has written about their learning this term in the face of so much personal and global tumult. I find myself marveling over how writing sometimes helps us make a certain kind of temporary sense of complicated things; sometimes it is the medium through which we declare our near-certitude about some previous state of no-sense that now seemingly makes sense; and sometimes it gives us a way to document our confusion, our anguish in the face of no-sense. I also think about how sometimes writing is about all of this, and other things, too. What an honor to bear witness through reading what my students have to write about the learning they are experiencing, and to get to write back to them (even if mostly in the formal form of my “assessment feedback”).
Much of what learners – students and teachers, alike – – engage in when in formal academic settings is the process of trying to make sense of things. That is, in fact, what all formal, institutionalized, and codified ways of knowing are about, whether scientific, artistic, philosophic, or meta-physic (or, or, or…). Students get taught and learn about knowledge traditions, and hopefully how knowledge(s) are produced and used and their implications, and perhaps even go on to shape (dismantle, re-create, create anew) these knowledge traditions. And educators determine, model, and facilitate what should be known, and how. When we assess how we are all doing in this ongoing, grand learning project, we peer into the ongoing spiraling process to see how well our students are learning about different ways of making sense of complex reality, and how well we as teachers are doing in support of their learning.
Together, we are all trying to make sense.
From a broader perspective, the human journey across the life course is fundamentally about learning how to make sense of no-sense. Which, it has occurred to me, might at its core be about trying to make meaning of experiences that are given to us, that we stumble into, that may or may not have “inherent meaning” in and of themselves, despite what we are taught to think about who we are and our place in the ever-emerging universe and all of the things that happens to us in this human journey.
We are all trying to make sense. Which is really about trying to make meaning of things that we may not understand, not now, perhaps, and maybe not ever. There are some things that are unknowable, or only partially, provisionally knowable. In the middle — in the aftermath—of all that’s been happening in individual lives and within the larger human community as the winter of 2011 transitions into the spring, we are all trying to make sense. Some of us call upon our spiritual or meta-philosophical practices to bolster us in the face of events and experiences that challenge our capacity to make sense of that which seems to make no-sense. And yet, and yet.
Oh, wow—you know what I just realized as writing this? No-sense can actually be a kind of sense – Think about your own experiences: Have you ever had to conclude, after many brutal “learning experiences” and much consultation with others and critical reflection and perseveration and spiritual practice…that, alas, something just didn’t make sense, and that this no-sense might, in fact, actually be its sense, its deeper meaning?
Circling back to what I was saying about what happens in the process of formal education, there’s always at least one moment in the course of facilitating a learning experience where I or one of my students meets the morass of confusion. And back to my question about our habitual responses to no-sense, I’d observe that I and many of my students almost always panic when we reach this place of confusion and lack of clarity; we resist it, fight it, beg for it to be over immediately or to magically evaporate. (And in the case of my students, they may even become temporarily mutinous and claim that they shouldn’t have to be in such a muddle, that: 1) the books I’ve asked them to read are unclear; 2) the course is poorly designed; and/or 3) I’m not doing a good enough job explaining things!).
But when we honestly reflect upon how we learn and develop as humans we know that these periods of confusion, or no-sense, are absolutely necessary, and without them, well, the process of learning – and, in fact, the process of traveling through the human life course — wouldn’t be as deep, meaningful, and interesting.
Of course, it is helpful – perhaps crucial– to have someone in our life who has developed wisdom about how all this seems to work and holds the faith on our behalf that no matter how long it takes, how much it sucks, something new will come out of the confusion, some sense will be made of the no-sense. I try to serve this role as a teacher (and parent!), but I’m still learning, and what’s really beautiful is that my students (and daughter) often serve this role for me; we are all in it together, you know? Some of my elder friends at Mary’s Woods continuing care retirement community who participate in our twice-monthly collaborative inquiry group also serve this role in my life, and it occurs to me that this matter of living and growing in the face of no-sense would make for a great discussion topic. And, also, that I might thank them for serving this important role in my life.
So, what do we tell ourselves and each other about how to respond to and live with no-sense, how to make meaning of experiences and events that seem to defy coherence and rationality? One of my students wrote early this morning, asking what I thought about the fact that she’d experienced so many losses – big ones, deaths – in the past month. She felt completely uncertain, worried, a bit superstitious, even – She wanted so much for there to be meaning for all that she and her close-in people and companion-creatures (two dear pets were amongst the deceased) were experiencing, a bright side to all of the darkness. And in pondering my potential responses to her questions, I realized that often –always?–our desire to make sense of no-sense, to find meaning in what seems to defy meaning-making, is also about our yearning for permanence, for certitude, for the fundamental soundness of our own and others’ existence. I mean, this stuff that hurts so much, that scares us so deeply, it has to count for something, right? As I’ve written elsewhere, we make plans for a future we may not experience; we have one foot on the earth, and one foot in the stars.
I’m never sure what to say. Sometimes it seems the best I can do is to murmur sweet assurances that while right now it feels that absolutely nothing makes sense, that this crappy no-sense is a totalizing force, that I promise at some time in the future, maybe soon, maybe not, things will feel more sensible, some things will start to make some sense again. And this is actually true, right? And sometimes it seems that the best I can do is to cop to one of the other true things that can be said: All of this loss and the no-sense and the enormous pain that is experienced in the face of it—it totally and completely sucks. Wouldn’t it be nice sometimes to not have a creaturely-consciousness such that you are aware of what’s happening and how you feel about it?
But we do have such a creaturely-consciousness. And we are aware, more than we seem to have the capacity to wrap our minds around most of the time. And, truth be told, there is so much that makes no-sense. And that no-sense is a certain kind of sense, a fecund kind, the kind where you think all is lost, only to emerge, with the support of your comrades (who sometimes help, sometimes just witness), into a new kind of self-sense, with a new kind of understanding about and purpose – albeit impermanent, tentative, temporal and glorious—on the ever-changing Earth, in the ever-emerging universe.
 To hear an NPR interview with Stanley Kunitz and see the poem in its entirety, go to: http://www.npr.org/programs/atc/features/2001/mar/010330.kunitz.html
 “Daily Developments,” The Oregonian, March 12, 2011, page A7.
 We could have quite a discussion about whether there is any such thing at this point in Earth’s history that is beyond the influence of humans and thus purely, pristinely “natural.”
 “Step Across This Line, from the book Step across this line: Collected nonfiction, 1992-2002 (2002), by Salman Rushdie.
 (I wonder if grebes would mind being mixed up with ducks. If I were a grebe, I think I might not like to be mistaken for a duck! But why, is the question.)
 All classification information comes from The Sibley guide to birds, by David Allen Sibley (2000). By the way—and I know you’ll be very impressed–in middle school science I won “most likely to succeed in science” because I could recite from memory scientific taxonomy: “Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.”
 I wonder what the ducks would say to me if we spoke a shared language? “Hey, human, what makes you think we want your help? Stay out of our duck business, it has nothing to do with you!” What do you think the ducks might say?
 “Small Wonder” by Barbara Kingsolver, from the book Small wonder (2002).
 The participatory mind (1994), by Henryk Skolimowski, page 26.