presence of being, gift of presence

Back in the spring some time in the mid-90s, in a stroke of serendipity — and if you’re someone who’s read more than a couple of entries on this blog, you’ll know I keep coming back to that word because the strange constellation of coincidences in the ordinary life continue to… simply astound me — anyway, quite out of the blue, and happily, it would later turn out, for me, I was assigned to work the “Freire event.” This was long before the name Paolo Freire would come to have any real significance for me, but due in part to my insistence on finding work during university breaks instead of going home, I found myself ushering people to their seats and preparing folders to hand out to participants at an international literacy conference in Philadelphia. The sweet reward, in addition to meager pay, was seeing and hearing Freire speak — he passed away shortly after, but for the better part of an hour (as I remember it, fuzzily now) he spoke to a rapt audience. I am ashamed to say that I do not recall with any real clarity the words he spoke, nor can I honestly say that I learned something of note while eating my lunch in the large, hotel ballroom. What I do remember, nearly twenty years later, were the faces of the people seated around me. Some with mouths slightly agape, others who had temporarily lost the ability to blink (it seemed); what I did not fully appreciate then was the experience of seeing and hearing someone utter words and ideas that felt like a homecoming for the intellectual soul. Many in the audience, I later suspected, had grown up with, in a scholarly sense, the writings of Freire — these were people for whom “reading the world” was nascent to their being, and yet who still might have seen or heard something unexpected in the familiar narrative constructions that this septuagenerian was offering. Perhaps I am romanticizing things. A bit.

My understanding of my fellow then-luncheon-mates was renewed and refined when, last night, I had the occasion to sit in the audience as a ninety-six year old Jerome Bruner delivered a plenary address to a packed and equally rapt auditorium of conference attendees. Before the evening session began, which he shared with another speaker, Jerry, as everyone kept calling him, sat on the edge of the stage, his dark brown wooden cane lying next to him and his legs slightly swinging. When the conference organizers conferred about something off to the side, he looked around, looked up, smiled occasionally to himself — not entirely unlike a child or any of us in an unguarded moment. When he was introduced, he walked from his seat on one side of the stage to the podium on the other side without his cane. He moved somewhat slowly, but not as slowly as I was expected, I realized, thereby revealing my own assumptions about nonagenarians. I had never heard Bruner speak before, and what struck me first was the strength and energy in his voice. Had he always sounded like that, I wondered. Once we reach our late teens or twenties, have we acquired our speaking voice for life?

The words I posted yesterday were written by him, are attributed to him, however they feel — I hope you’ll forgive the unintended hubris — like mine. That is, I did not want to take credit for them. No, I wanted instead to mark my kinship with the certain order of like-minded kindreds whose understandings about the world are similarly shaped. This is different than the childlike desire to exclaim, “Me, too!” It is more akin to wondering how someone crawled into my mind. Reading Bruner has a similar effect on me to that of reading work by Maxine Greene — even if the actual words are new, are different, there is a sense of homecoming with each utterance. Even with the ideas that may feel sometimes disconcerting, at times unsettling, they are profoundly familiar and endlessly inviting of further inquiry.

This time, as I sat listening to someone speak with more than twice as much life experience as me — by which I mean, the experience of being a living human on this earth — I listened with a pad of paper on my lap in front of me and a pen in my right hand. I made jottings and drawings and underlined and starred words, while my eyes remained fixed on the looming presence in front of me. He waxed poetically, thoughtfully, and quite a bit snarkily at times, and spoke of an ongoing co-teaching gig at the NYU Law School and some new writing and questions about literature and the law that were beginning — *beginning!* — to intrigue him. I hope that when I’m 96, I’m beginning new inquiries and continuing longstanding ones, too. With his presence, it seemed, Bruner was every bit the exemplar of the notion that life is narrative; he was the living embodiment of a life, lived.

Leaving me to wonder if we will again see the figures like the ones who left indelible marks yesterday — including Bruner, Freire, Greene and Baldwin, Hurston, Foucault, and others — who might leave traces into tomorrow…

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