Let me tell you a story of Paradise and Myopia.
As we are skidding into the final weeks of the semester, my capacities have dwindled to a mere rime of salt in the part of the barrel that is too far away for the average arm to reach. I have survived by paring my activities to the bare minimum. I sleep as many hours as I can reasonably manage, going to bed with babies and rising with a lethargic winter sun. I have focused entirely on being in the classroom and that's it. And I'm limping along to the end.
And, weirdly, the teaching I'm doing is some of the best of my career. Because I'm not. I'm doing the Don't and it's making possible the emergence of a whole world of engagement for my students.
So, Thursday, I forgot my glasses. Without them, I can read nothing. Even enbiggening my computer font doesn't help because that just makes all the doubled letters bigger doubled letters. I despaired. I reenacted in dramatic fashion John Milton's sonnet, "When I Consider How My Light is Spent," in which he asks how he's supposed to serve god if he can't see. Enter, in the role of "Patience," my wyrdo Jessica, who edged up to me like a whisperer of the despairing and said, "So, let the students read to you."
I was teaching Paradise Lost, which Milton wrote while he was blind, dictating it to his daughters. So, this advice was apropos.
I showed up in class, laid out a rough game plan, and the students read me Adam and Eve's argument about whether it's better to stick together and avoid "the enemy" or to go off alone and confront it.
And the students LOVED IT. They read joyfully and bombastically. They formed groups and discussed the arguments. We staged a debate, half taking Adam's position, half Eve's. They laughed and joked and did all the work and said smart things about the relative merits of the epistemologies of AUTHORITY and EXPERIENCE, and I could not get them to stop. I had to forcefully call a halt so the next class could come in, and they were still debating in the hallway.
And all I had to do was to get the heck out of their way. "They also serve who only stand and wait," says Patience to Milton.
The disaster of forgetting my glasses became the limit that enabled a leap.
In his wonderfully compassionate book, A Therapeutic Journey, Alain de Botton says many wise things, including a refrain about the value of long baths, and the salutary effect of looking at black holes and distant galaxies and knowing how freaking small we are. He talks about the breakdown, the calamitous mental crash, as a sort of friend, in a way. We have been sick for a very long time, he tells the broken, and we mistake our breakdown for the illness when it is in fact the work we have begun to find our way to health.
Finding the way is very circuitous and quixotic and mostly counterintuitive. So much of what I have been trained to believe about myself and my vocation is actually of little use or in fact actively hindering to my vocation. In my courses this semester, I have learned that the ground of learning isn't authority, but community. These students were able to take on this challenge of leading my myopic self through Paradise because we spent the long weeks leading to this moment building our community, making sure that every student has worked with every other, laying down our values and checking in on them, asking how we are living them. This work takes time and the detractors insist that they have too much content to witter away even a half hour talking about what we love and how to make a place for it to live, or thinking about what we believe our learning is for. But I find again and again that no content is lost. In fact, we cover more, in more depth, with greater joy and understanding because we are kind and connected.
Rebecca Solnit says that joy is a fine first act of insurrection. She's right.
Even when Paradise is falling, she's right. We go out of Paradise, but we go, Milton says, "hand in hand."