Dr. Grauer's Column - Holes
Dear Class of 2020,
Almost 700 years ago, in 1348, the Black Death struck and began wiping out 50% of the entire population of Europe. In Italy, shops stood empty. Churches shut down. So begins the Decameron, the story of seven young ladies and three young gentlemen who flee the Italian city to decamp in the countryside.
Out there, they begin a routine: They will take walks, sing songs, make exquisite meals with fine wines for a period of 14 days, still today the length, of course, of a quarantine.
To fill the 10 days in the middle of their quarantine, they each take one day to tell stories to the others. I can’t imagine a better plan. A great story is about the best way humans can fill their empty days with meaning. These epic, story masterpieces were the birth of the modern short story.
Today, I am taking a road trip. The radio reports that in Thailand and Japan, mobs of monkeys and even deer are roaming streets now devoid of tourists. I am driving out of the city and up into the Laguna Mountains. I have not been here in 26 years. I’m getting out of the city to recapture an old story, to fill an old hole. It is a Decameron day and today is my turn.
My daughter did not walk early. Instead of standing up straight, after crawling, she sat up and scooted around for some weeks on her hiney. She’ll kill me for saying that, but what are dads for? At last, when she was around 15 months old, she stood up and hobbled her first few steps. I was ready and had a plan in action.
I picked her right up, loaded her into the car along with the little strap-on skis I had all ready for this very moment, drove her up here, to the Lagunas, altitude 6000 feet, where snow covered the ground, and strapped her in. And I began pushing her across the thin new snow, in little nudges.
She didn’t seem to understand much about what was happening, skidding around on white stuff. But I knew she would need strong origin stories to carry her through life. Skiing the day she could walk is her origin story. Much later, today, I barely keep up with her on skis.
You have to have origin stories to have purpose. Starting from the day you can walk, or from the day you arrive at college, life will never be the same. Those are great origin story days.
When I got to college, the Vietnam war was raging crazily along. It was terrible, and it shaped me over those four years. When I was a junior, something unthinkable happened. Around the country, students were protesting a war that appeared to have no purpose other than to ruin lives and cultures. The President of the United States, Richard Nixon, sent our National Guard troops out to one of those colleges. I don’t know how he picked that one, but it was Kent State University. We heard that the students there, just like at my university, chanted and took over an administration building. They were marching audaciously in protest when troops opened fire on them, killing four of them and injuring eight.
I don’t know if you, my students here in 2020, will even believe this, so I am writing to say that this is true: the United States government, possibly on orders from our President, ended up massacring its own students for the crime of peacefully marching—in protest of a war that almost no one even knew why we, mostly people around college age, were fighting. This is not the hole I want to fill for you, though. It’s what happened next:
Amidst the protests and triggered by the shootings, colleges all over the country, including Syracuse University, where I was, shut down as students went on strike. Many classes ceased, and students milled about or holed up in dorm rooms.
And so: In the history of the United States, you seniors and I share an experience very few others could even imagine: you want to go to school, well sorta’, but school as you know it is shut down.
The first night of the closure, I set out into a dark, apocalyptic-feeling campus where students wandered about looking wide-eyed and a little stunned, and I started learning a lot of what I know today about the act of observing. (They did not teach observing in school as I came to know it.) I followed a band of students who looked rowdy, and watched one of them throw a brick through the administration building window where the student leaders had camped out. They looked excited. It’s all vague, but I remember bonfires, somehow.
On campus, the sense of separation, isolation, victimization, estrangement and, for lack of a better word, quarantine was palpable.
Classes were made optional.
Philosophy class. A single student shows up. The student sits at a desk in the second row, waiting. The professor walks in. He walks to the podium. He claims he is a structural functionalist, which was a school of thought, delivers his complete formal lecture to the room of one. And he just leaves. That’s it. I wanted so terribly badly to learn in those days, but I could not process things. I don’t know how I got so broken. I looked at the book and nothing sunk in, no structural functionalism, no meaning, just words.
I tried to describe all this in a term paper to the professor, in one way or another, and here is what he scrolled in very large, red, cursive letters across the cover page of my paper that I still keep in my file cabinet:
That was the only class I have ever failed. At the time, I was also taking my first class in education, I did not and still do not know why. Most likely, the class I wanted was filled up, so I just checked the box of whatever class was open. At the end of that optional semester, the education professor said he was having a final exam and if you did not show up for the final you would get a B in the class, and if you did show, you would get an A. So, I showed up. I guess you could say the rest is history. I did not become a philosopher.
Today, I am 6000 feet up in the Lagunas, trying to fill this one hole of my life in story, and I realize that I am still in shock and that shock is a natural condition in a disconnected world. That’s what drives in the country are all about. It is beautiful. The human race is on quarantine and the earth is celebrating.
On long drives, music orchestrates the passing countryside. Today, an old story is dying. Our senior classes are being delivered a new origin story, and these are necessary if we are going to make our lives whole, going forward.
It is only an origin story if it means that, after this story, you will not return to normal. There will be a new normal. Learning to walk. Learning to create a story.
Today, in Emergence Magazine, Paul Kingsnorth describes the old story:
“Normal is cheap flights and cheap lattes, normal is Chinese girls sewing our T-shirts under armed guard, normal is biblical bushfires and barrels of oil, normal is city breaks and international conferences and African children poisoning their bodies sorting the plastic we have dumped on their coastlines, normal is nitrite pollution and burning stumps and the death of the seas.”
You can write better stories.
At school as we’ve all known it, there have been a few things about normal I have not been so thrilled about. Normal always meant students who rarely have time and space to spend out in the natural world. Normal was waking up in the morning more exhausted than excited. Normal meant school amounted to a race to a finish, a few test scores, rather than a process of deepening and ripening.
What if the new normal means time to have conversations that are real, not just human efforts to control? What if it means experiencing great listening?
And what if, rather than focusing on keeping the curriculum and learning going forward, we shifted the focus instead to allowing learning to happen? Observing. Wandering aimlessly around ideas until you can make discoveries of your own, the way all great scientists and writers do? Giving you the skis to see where you can glide and what questions you could come back with. What stories could you write?
Boccaccio’s young people holed up and told 100 stories while the previously unknown Yersinia pestis bacteria, the plague, the Black death, raged on. In town, which was actually Florence, work ceased being done.
The Decameron stories relished in merely observing, broke from the insistence on the human ability to control, even exploit, all of our fortunes. It was pure storytelling, with no other purpose. Those young people told ribald, inappropriate, wildly creative stories to one another as Boccaccio invented what would be known as the short story, 700 years ago, thanks to the plague.
The plague of course cleared up in due course, and those young people got back to the city. But things would be different. Those cities rebuilt in stone, sanitation got better, people ate better and healthier, the average lifespan of people increased. Only after all that, it became a city that is widely known to be almost unbelievably beautiful. Florence.
And we had modern literature. And 100 years after that, Michelangelo. If there were no plague, there’d be no Michelangelo.
Today, I am walking deeper into the trails and back country. This is actually a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, just an hour from our school in Encinitas. I pass the manzanitas, the classic live oaks and local pines, and enter a marshland meadow. At last, I reach a spot, with a sign identifying this area as Los Huecos (“los wacos”).
Huecos means: “holes.”
I recognize this instantly as the spot I took my daughter 26 years ago, with the skis. I start passing across the large meadow of foamy marsh grasses. Everything is dull in color and the ground looks like a wreckage but I know this is only because beneath the melting snow and broken branches is life I can’t see, conjuring its spring reappearance in a few weeks. If I were a great teacher, I might describe all this potential beneath the surface. It reminds me of those charred, black trees I passed on the way here that the California wildfires almost took out, but now they are budding. It’s new life.
I begin stalking a scrub jay, trying to get a great photo. At last I have him, on the branch of a leafless sumac. I creep in closer, capture him in the viewfinder. I am about to click the shutter, and Paco springs forward, snarling, I shift quickly and my foot drops down deep into a hole, knee deep, as the bird flies off again and I miss the shot. It’s another hole, but not everything has to be a metaphor. Some things are just there to mess up the story line.
I don’t know if we can say that plagues and wildfires and pain and loss have meaning, but they create space for us to tell stories and heal one another.
As you are thinking about the end of all this, after all the losses, when we are at last in a new, healthy life, what is it you wish for in that new life, anyway? Perhaps for your graduation speech: Do you really think the whole point of this is to just return to exactly what we had? What if this is a chance for a renaissance, and the next Michelangelo? What will you be looking for in the coming world?
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