The End and the Beginning

NOTE: I began this post in April, part way through my last quarter as a teacher at Neah Bay High School. I didn’t finish it for some reason. Now I want to get it out.

In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds

— Wisława Szymborska

It’s been a tough year for me out here away from birdland. I’ve missed so much and have done a terrible job dealing with that frustration. I’ve turned self-pity from a Georges Seurat triptych to El Capitan. Nothing gets through, and you know it won’t, so you stop trying.

Or you should.

But I haven’t, even though I’ve told myself a thousand times I should. Leonard Cohen puts it this way:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Until this afternoon I’ve all but ignored that light (despite focusing, obsessing on the cracks). Right now I’m sitting at my desk in my classroom overcome with overdetermined light and a few tears shed by an epiphany coming from a conversation with a student about the last stanza of Wisława Szymborska’s 1993 poem, “The End and the Beginning.” “…someone must be stretched out / blade of grass in his mouth / gazing at the clouds.” The poem is about recovering from the destruction of war. I hadn’t read the final image correctly, and I hadn’t even chosen the poem but rather used it as one of the readings in a canned textbook unit (something I’d never done until now, which — if you’re a teacher — will tell you something about my state of mind). And so here comes the student, trying to finish writing answers to the questions in the textbook, and we worked through it together, and we both saw the light at the same time. Dead center in the stanza is the word “must,” which is a word we must become desensitized to in order to endure parents’ and teachers’ and authority figures’ orders, or to make haphazard guesses as to whom is knocking on the door (“It must be the postman…”). But everything depends on that word here because, without it, the thing that signifies recovery can not happen. Someone must be lying there on the grass without a care in the world.

When I was about 10 years old, still disgusted by the two-year-old fact that the Beatles had broken up, I edged up the alphabet to the next good thing to listen to: Beethoven. My favorite composition of his is the adagio to his string quartet Opus 132, the “Heiliger Dankgesang,” which he wrote after recovering from a near-death experience. If you haven’t heard it, it’s worth a listen because I think anyone can hear the joy of a kind of breakthrough, and we can all use that kind of experience from time to time. It was a rough year, two years, for everyone, and we’re still not out of it. Remember that, and remember to remember that you yourself are not exempt from the need for TLC. There were many times this past year when I felt I’d reached the end, and things like this string quartet, or like the experience with the student (I wish I felt I had the space here to do justice to that moment, and to the student himself) cracks open the chance for a beginning. We all must have those moments. They’re everywhere, but sometimes hard to see.

So I’ve missed birdland, as I knew I would but didn’t know how much it would matter, and now see the chance to return to it, wherever or whenever that may be. All the responses to my previous post (“Granted“) were so kind and thoughtful and sincere and helpful. They’re the light that’s got through the crack, and I’m so grateful for it. I’m also just now realizing that after Beethoven, the next musical light that came on for me was just up the alphabet a bit: Bird (Charlie Parker). Which makes me think of Steven Feld’s amazing book on the Kaluli Indians of Papua New Guinea (Sound and Sentiment), whose existence is wholly wrapped up in the sounds of birds in the rain forest they live in (they rarely actually see the birds because the forest is so dense), so much so that when they describe those sounds they weep. Tears of joy. At the end of his time living with the Kaluli, Feld played them a recording of Charlie Parker, telling them he was called Bird. When they heard the recording, they wept. Tears of joy. I can hear the chukar calling.

10 Replies to “The End and the Beginning”

  1. Bob,

    It pains me to learn of the challenges you face. It encourages me to see you, once again, contemplating the circumstances and seeking a reasonable response. Reading your writing continues to display your great talents. I hope that the chuckers find you. Please know that I believe in you and wish you well. At the age of 51 I found myself without a job and an uncertain future. That was followed by the magical years in Cambridge. I believe that you will find some magic of your own.

    Stay strong my friend.


  2. Yo Bob: Good to hear from you. The echoes off the canyon walls will forever haunt you. The faint calls beckon us all.

  3. Bob,
    You mentioned Beethoven. Have you seen this?
    A friend sent it to me many moons ago. I loved it. To me, it is like chasing chukars. Sometimes you go up, sometimes down. Sometimes you fall on your head, sometimes on your behind. And sometimes on anywhere in between. But YOU DO FALL. That’s a promise. Sometimes you hunt alone and sometimes with a friend. Watch it. You can’t go wrong with a few minutes of Beethoven.
    Bahman from Sacramento

    1. Hey Bahman, I watched that Beethoven video years ago and couldn’t believe the precision of the editing! Amazing! Thanks for bringing it back to my attention. And I like your analogy to chukar hunting!

  4. Now I have to read sound and sentiment.

    Without too much unnecessary detail, as a young man I was tasked with leading a group of international environmentalists on a short hike through Great Falls, Maryland, where the Potomac River roars through a blender of granite outcroppings and cliffs. Having grown up in the area, I was a bit nonplussed by the familiar vista.

    However, as I was leading the group out, I noticed the gentleman from the wild Highlands of New Guinea was missing. I walked back and saw him transfixed, looking out across the roaring river, taking in the view of riotous fall colors. He had tears in his eyes but a smile on his face, and he whispered “I never knew they could change colors.”

Chirp away

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