Posts Tagged ‘life’


The Hourglass

October 19, 2015


“The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.” ― Jean-Paul Sartre

Seeing one’s life clearly is never an easy task, even as the passing years mount. I have entered a period of deep reflection brought on by the startling deaths of two friends and furthered by my recent birthday. Both of these heightened my awareness of mortality, and both prompted thoughts about my own life.

So today on this Evaluate Your Life Day, I shall attempt to do that in some small way.

My life has been that of a teacher. It has been my calling and passion for as long as I can remember and my reality since I have been an adult. But when I look back, I dwell on my shortcomings, and I am often filled with regret by thoughts of my failures and disappointment over what I should have done differently or better, even if those things were in actuality beyond my ability to change.

I think back to my Peace Corps days in the Philippines walking through the abject poverty of the slums of Manila and the outstretched needy hands I walked by, the total destruction of the typhoons that swept through the islands with little help forthcoming while I had a safe place to be and food to eat, the bare schoolhouses in the barrios filled with children who lived with no electricity or running water that I was supposed to be helping. I walked through the village in which I lived knowing that my $75 a month salary made me the richest person there. I should have done more.

I think of my early years teaching in Newark, thirty-five kids before me in the classroom with a dearth of materials, an idealistic young teacher knowing the bleak path that lay before so many of those wide-eyed youngsters living in tenements where often several children slept in the same bed, no desk at which to study, no books on a shelf to read, surrounded by alcohol, drugs, and violence. I found myself in a war against disadvantage and poverty. I should have battled longer.

I think of those students at Archbishop Walsh and Pierrepont who I did not reach, the athletes on the teams I coached that I failed to help, the colleagues that I might have done more for. I think of the times I could have shown more patience, better judgment, a cooler head, or simple kindness but did not. I should have tried harder.

I feel the weight of each person I let down, and I am ashamed.

But in the wake of the recent death of my good friend and on the day of my birthday I received some wonderful messages from former students. I am grateful to them for their kind words for they lifted my spirits at a time when I needed it, and they filled my heart. I think they helped give me a perspective of my own life in a way that I could never do on my own.

One of them spoke of the common phenomenon of carrying things unsaid inside and how it sometimes takes drastic circumstances to finally articulate them. I understand this, for I have done it far too often myself.

On the occasion of my retirement, I wrote a letter in which I did articulate many of the unsaid things I kept within me through all my years of teaching. I repeat them now for they remain true, and though they may not be the evaluation I find so difficult to make even as the sand continues to escape my hourglass, they lay bare my ideals and the standards I held for myself. I can only hope I lived up to them at least some of the time.

Here is what I had — and still have — to say:

I have always felt unable to evaluate myself as a teacher or what I had or had not accomplished. I don’t know for sure what I did, but I do know what I wanted.

In my classroom I wanted to be Hendrix, Coltrane, Picasso. I wanted to be Holden Caulfield protecting children from harm as they wandered in their reverie too close to the edge of the cliff, to protect the vulnerable and the innocent and relieve the pain that circumstance so often has inflicted upon them. I wanted to disperse the tenderness of those who give comfort in times of need.

I wanted my students to recognize the power, the beauty, the joy, the mystery of language. I wanted them to understand that those weren’t just words on a page, the drudgery of the school kid’s routine, but were the wisdom, the experience, the heart and spirit of another human being and that somewhere out there exists a story or poem or novel or play that will reach into them and shake their very souls. I wanted them to know that the sometimes seemingly futile search is worth it.

I wanted them to be exposed to writing of all sizes, shapes, and origins beyond those contained within school books, to know that there is a sea of possibility beyond the horizon they are used to. I wanted them to meet and come to know Atticus and Jem and Scout, Romeo and Juliet, Buddy and his dear old cousin not just as answers to trivia questions but as beings that exist within them.

I wanted those who sat before me to open their eyes, see the world as it was, as it is, as it might be. I wanted them to recognize that improving one’s own skills in the art of using our wonderful, wacky language will contribute to the ability to express the unique and invaluable perspectives of what they see.

I wanted school not to be fear and boredom, but enlightenment, acceptance, and in those best of times, magic. I wanted to be of service to others, to be useful, to make some kind of difference in this life.

And I still do.


The Vinegar Monk

October 16, 2011

This is a test.


This is a test.

Whaddaya mean? What’s a test?

This. That. Everything.


Relax. It’s not like you’re Job, you know.

You mean… this… is a test?

Yes. If it helps, just think of it as practice. For the other ones. The harder ones.


Perhaps if you spent a bit more time on your spiritual development?


In any event, I’ll be in touch.



Autumn had arrived. There were many events that signaled it beyond the changing of the foliage.

I had gotten off the phone with the doc, who got results from another round of tests and wanted to start me on another medication. What is this phase of life that we enter when our bodies start failing us?

Before that, I picked up from the shop our new-but-now-violated car ($1,342 violated) that was the target of an attempted theft. In my own driveway.

Before that, installed a motion sensor light by the driveway as a hopeful deterrent to further episodes (with the dubious side effect of shining into my neighbor’s bedroom window every time a breeze blows the surrounding trees).

But before that too was a weekend in the autumnal glory that is rural upstate New York (a long weekend, both of us playing hooky Monday). It was the occasion of my birthday and our anniversary, so we said what the heck and went. It was wonderful.

And before that was the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, the last ever at Waterloo Village in northwest New Jersey (closed due to lack of state funding). It went out with a bang.

And even before that, it was Sidewalk Sale day in Montclair, and we, on our way to a craft fair in a park, stumbled upon it. My wife, an aficionado of such events, was off to the races, so I picked a nice bench on which to wait. Figuring she was good for at least an hour, I strolled over to the church, which was having a rummage sale on its lawn in conjunction with the sidewalk sale, and saw boxes of used books, three for a dollar; how can one go wrong? I thought I could find something to pass the time, and indeed I did, The Best American Essays of 2004. Perfect! I could read some shorter pieces without the kind of commitment I wasn’t ready to give to a novel.

I reclaimed my spot on the bench, flipped through the essays, and spotted an interesting title, “Bullet in my Neck,” noticing that it was by a poet I like, Gerald Stern. It seems that Stern and a female companion, who was driving, got lost leaving Newark airport on the way to a poetry reading and found themselves in the heart of Newark. They were stopped at a light. He looked over at her and saw that beyond her, outside her window, was a young guy with a gun pointed at her, about to squeeze the trigger. The gun misfired, but when he turned his head, he saw the guy outside his window, and his gun did not misfire. The bullet struck him in the neck. They raced off to find help and ended up at the hospital (where a guard tried to stop him from going in the wrong entrance). The bullet was lodged dangerously close to an artery, so the doctors decided it would be best to leave it be (hence the title of the essay). The heart of the essay was the aftermath of this event, the struggle with one’s desire to be understanding of the human conditions that cause such behavior versus the anger over what-the-heck-did-you-have-to-shoot-me-for, as I am now struggling with the milder what-the-heck-did-you-have-to-break-into-my-car-for.

At the Dodge festival several weeks later, I saw on the schedule that none other than the selfsame Gerald Stern was going to be reading. I attended his small-group session (somewhat ironically about poetry and disruption), and when it was over went up to him and told the story of reading his essay (my car not yet having been broken into). He was quite funny for a cantankerous old poet, and ended our brief conversation with, “And you know, the bullet is still  there!”

Ah, the connectivity of Life.

My wife Bernadette, ever the lover of esoteric cooking and food information, saw an article in the NY Times about a Benedictine monk who lived by himself in upstate New York making homemade vinegar (viewed by the outside world as a gourmet item). After it was decided that we would go away for the weekend, she went back to the article, and, Lo and Behold, that very monk’s monastery was in a town not so far from where we were going. We plotted various routes on Mapquest, and we found ourselves driving along country roads near LaGrangeville, NY, looking for the isolated sanctuary of the Vinegar Monk, which most of the locals, having been asked, had never heard of. Finally, in a small roadside convenience store a customer, looking for all the world like a Mountain Man, overheard my query to the clerk and pointed us in the right direction. Several miles later, there it was, a small sign at the entrance of a winding dirt road leading into the woods.

After driving up the narrow road which was punctuated by small religious statuary on posts, we arrived at a farmhouse in a somewhat overgrown yard with dogs barking and chickens and cats running about, suspiciously eying these intruders of their bucolic world. The farmhouse (which had crosses on it; it must be the place) had no public looking “entrance,”  so we found ourselves standing around wondering what to do next when we heard tapping coming from one of the upstairs windows.

Moments later, Brother Victor-Antoine D’Avila-Latourrette appeared, bald headed and wearing a cassock and sandals, one’s very image of a monk. He invited us in, and we sat in his dark and rather musty parlor. He was genuinely hospitable in spite of being busy (“Please excuse me; I was making pesto sauce for the Christmas Festival”). He told us, in his slight French accent,  all about his vinegar making (using a twelfth-century recipe from France), the writing of the Times article, the interns from nearby Vassar who sporadically worked on the farm with him (and from where the writer of the Times article came), how he ended up being alone at the monastery, and what life was like on a small farm in upstate New York. He showed us his chapel, a simple but elegant stone-walled room off the back of the farmhouse, and then came the vinegar.

He had an assortment of bottles, some white, some red, several in “fancy” Christmas bottles (“Oh, they’re so hard to come by”). Bernadette was ready to buy, but he insisted that first we smell (Wow!!) and then taste using a teaspoon from his kitchen. And indeed this was special stuff, each handcrafted batch having its own distinct personality described with obvious love by Brother Victor. On a table were some old and dusty cookbooks which Bernadette discovered were written by him, a 1966 graduate of Columbia University. She bought one of them, too, with peasant recipes from France interspersed with homey religious quotes. Two of my favorites: “For a small reward a man will hurry away on a long journey, while for eternal life many will hardly take a single step.” (Thoms A Kempis) and “Three enemies of personal peace: regret over yesterday’s mistakes, anxiety over tomorrow’s problems, and ingratitude for today’s blessings.” (William Arthur Ward). One book, which I was tempted to get, was entitled Twelve Months of Monastery Soups.

At that point, Brother Victor, almost apologetically for what he seemed to consider his lapse of social grace, asked what our names were, and when he heard “Bernadette,” he became nothing short of ecstatic. It turns out that he was born not far from Lourdes, and his grandfather knew THE Bernadette. He ushered us back into the chapel to show us the special shrine he had for Saint Bernadette as well as other very old religious icons including an eleventh century statue of Mary. We then went outside to view the Grotto of Bernadette in front of the farmhouse, followed by a tour of his little farm (“Oh, I’m so glad I came out here with you; I left the water running in the hose for the sheep!”). He showed us the vegetable garden and the herb garden, all the while telling us stories of the difficulties of running the farm on his own and trying to make vinegar as well as keep up his religious life. He had been selling vinegar through the nearby Millbrook Winery, but it got to be too much. Once a prominent restauranteur from California had found out about him and wanted to fly him out (“But I’ve never been to California, I told him. I’m a monk; I don’t get out much”).

We finally bid him adieu and drove off in wonderment over the unexpected and magical interlude we had just experienced. Miles from New Jersey. Light years from Newark. The next two days were filled with walks through the beautiful autumn woods, drives past pastures with mellow cows and meandering stone walls, my upcoming rendezvous with medical consternation still days away.

Yes. The three enemies of personal peace: regret over yesterday’s mistakes (attempted car thefts, bullets in the neck), anxiety over tomorrow’s problems (the ever-increasing medications and the encroaching old age it symbolizes), and ingratitude for today’s blessings (Bernadette’s mysterious and ceaseless love, the golden leaves blowing about).

Ah, the connectivity of Life.