Denouement — sabbatical as pilgrimage, part 2

Denouement. In dramatic terms, the denouement follows a narrative climax and signals the conclusion, which is sometimes marked by resolution although not necessarily. In flight terms, we might think of this as the moment the wheels touch down on the runway. In lasagna terms, it’s the point at which you remove the foil to initiate the browning process for the top layer of cheese a few minutes from the end of cooking. It is sunset, the after dinner drink, the autumn of a calendar year. Everything in life, it seems, has a penultimate stage, a moment that is both of and also precedes the ending. Occasionally there are surprises, but more often than not this stage is characterized by affirmation and conviction. And so, with less than three weeks remaining before the start of the new school year, my sabbatical denouement is well underway.

Thoreau understood that “This world is but a canvas for our imagination.” When colleagues and friends ask me, as they no doubt will (some more perfunctorily than others), to describe this past year, I have decided to simply say, “I worked on my imagination.” To kindred spirits, this response will more than suffice, will be the germ of future dialogue about how one cultivates the self, not merely for selfish or hedonistic purposes but to be better able to live as a person in the world who can work with others in service of larger, collective goals (perhaps). To cynics who are overly concerned — as they are wont to be — with “the point,” who, I think it is safe to say, may be the type to use “found time” such as sabbatical to keep dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s to the exclusion of the many other letters in the alphabet, not to mention the many other alphabets and sign systems with which to make meaning…. well, to them, the simple answer may annoy, confound, or give further reason to dismiss. And that’s ok with me.

Almost exactly thirteen and a half months ago, I started this blog. Its primary purpose was to keep friends and family informed of the goings-on as the year-plus of “time off” took me to strange, distant, occasionally familiar, and always educative places. In the course of blogging, and perhaps because of the commitment I made to this handful of people to whom I had originally given this url, I have read more widely, written more consistently, engaged robustly in the practice of noticing and attending, and played – with language, with photography, with art making, with food, with ideas… — more than I can remember doing in a very long time.

And during that same period, owing to the great stumbling-upon characteristic of the internet, I have had the great pleasure of hearing from and learning about the blogging adventures of others who also hock their discursive wares online. So ensconced have I been in the bosom of perpetual inspiration, is it any wonder that I have grown quite fond of this space – one in which I feel “free to be?” (Cue: Marlo Thomas and friends)

In her collection of essays entitled “Letter to my daughter,” Maya Angelou writes with her usual unapologetic frankness – a manner of poignancy that is less and less common today – on qualities of being human; she writes, among other things, of home and belonging (these are two words that are currently on my mind, in part because they are at the heart of a manuscript I have been shaping for what seems like forever). In an early chapter, she offers the following observation about what others have insisted is a gap between childhood and adulthood:

“I am convinced that most people do not grow up. We find parking spaces and honor our credit cards. We marry and dare to have children and call that growing up. I think what we do is mostly grow old. We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.”

Have we, in the pursuit of growing up, allowed ourselves to suppress any remembrances of the selves we inhabited as youth? The consideration of the absurd or the releasing of long held beliefs-turned-grudges can seem anathema in environments where everyone is attempting to be taken more seriously than the person to his or her left or right. (Perhaps this is never truer than during elections, as evidenced in the media circus currently going on in the States.) Can we grow up and also remain playful? Or are these contrasted ways of being?

In Angelou’s words can be found a sort of vindication for the time taken — these past several months but also at other times – to grow while also attending to the shy magnolia within. Hers are words I hope to hold close as the proverbial garlic to ward off the blood-sucking forces that threaten to dominate academic life.

Ivan Illich wrote the following about public schooling, although I think it applies to higher education (and many forms of corporatized institutions) as well: “School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.”

My always-wise, never shy, highly observant, quick-witted spouse, who has been the recipient of such idle musings for the better part of two decades, recently posed a question that I have found hard to ignore: did I think that societal “norms,” which have formed largely at a glacial pace, would somehow change or be repealed overnight? Perhaps not, wise one. But it is also true that change is both catalytic and glacial. Illich, often viewed with skepticism or disdain, can be read as proffering an invitation to slow down, to resist a perfunctory mode of living and to adopt a more subjunctive stance.

To thwart Illich’s all-too-prophetic claim, to attend to the homes we never leave while also allowing new homes to blossom, to resist the pull of the de facto and status quo, to dwell in the space of the “might be,” it seems we might do well to internalize a few lessons.

An incomplete list (in no particular order; modified and extended from a post-vipassana post):

  • Look closely, look again, and resist the immediate impulse to judge.
  • Mistakes happen. Make them.
  • Don’t lament “that” when you’re doing “this” (and vice versa). In other words: Now, you, this.
  • Wonder.
  • Contentment is not complacency.
  • “I don’t know” can be freeing.
  • Be willing to leave the cave.

I know what you’re thinking… and I, too, fear for my students this year…

The remainder of this month will be devoted to the completion of unfinished blog post drafts, a few wrap-up posts, and a consideration of how to use this space once the Seine is once again a dream…