A Persian Myth tells we’re born as camels with great burdens placed on our backs. The first third of our lives we must carry the bearings of our ancestors: beliefs, customs, aspirations and aberrations. Our souls are thus imprinted with culture.
As a child, I loved Sunday mass: solemn statue saints resonating pure lived lives, hymns on which to soar to high realms, tales of Jesus healing the blind and lame, saying we can do the same. His parables wove wisdom through my soul. My heart ascended with the true, good and beautiful.
When the priest pronounced, “Go now in peace,” bowed heads lifted. Purses and keys grasped, the masses pressed through the aisles towards their cars. Sharply, like a pierced balloon, my soul deflated. In a daze, my eyes fastened to my dad’s head bobbing through a sea of bonnets and hairdos to navigate my way to our Cadillac. As I gazed out the backseat window at parishioners vying for exit from the black asphalt parking lot, I pined for engagement with living truths like a plant pursuing light. Soon condominiums blocked the steeple’s ascent and I closed my eyes to gather the lingering glow within.
Once home, I slid off my patent leather shoes and fancy laced dress. Sitting with my family to ham and cheese sandwiches and store bought macaroni and potato salad, I was eager to have put dishes in the washer and wiped down the table. Finally, I could slip between pink azaleas and the cool concrete wall of my house to sit cloistered in a circle of Japanese yew. Beneath a canopy of dogwood, streams of insight like soaring organ arpeggios sculpted my soul as Heaven serenaded me. Legs moist with dirt and browning leaves, I sat in communion.
Every Saturday morning, catechism was a dark, stifling edifice in which I was brought to dwell. Strict definitions tacked down contours of the Divine, prescribing proper intercession, enumerating forbidden transgressions. My friend, John, memorized 60 such depictions in preparation for confirmation. The bishop, clothed in crimson regalia, strode past him and fellow eighth graders, frozen in line, to ask the questions. “What is a sacrament?” the bishop prodded Jennifer, shaking in her white Mary Janes. “An outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace,” she spurted, proud to have remembered word for word. The bishop nodded and walked away. John, stunned, holding back signs of disbelief muttered “Was that it? I memorized all those definitions for that?” It was then he told me he started to turn from the church.
Served up lifeless imperatives, our souls run on empty.
School, too, retained me in barren barracks. I took refuge in the occasional sculpting of clay renderings of the Acropolis. Filling in bubbles after finding the main idea dulled my mind. Searching for details of assigned passages in SRA kits was a closet from which I sought escape for air. Lining up on pungent waxed floors in dingy green hallways, my sinews clenched. Until at last, heavy metal doors were unbolted and my limbs could extend on the sundrenched clover fields of the school yard.
A trip to Garvies Point in fifth grade still lives in my soul. Groomed amongst sharply pruned shrubs and glossy polished surfaces, I stared wide-eyed and dreamy at simple scenes of natural living. Wooden dioramas displaying sun baked women weaving grass and bare footed children gathering acorns filled me with delight. I studied each gesture and object in my mind’s eye as I stared out the bus window at Shop Rite and Burger King on the ride back to our classroom. A window had cracked to a world long vanquished.
According to Persian myth, the second third of our lives, we become conscious of our load. We are now the lion who must eat the camel – taking what we choose, casting off what we reject.
As an Environmental Economics student at NYU, I ventured with my Botany class to New Jersey wetlands. This was a much awaited break from steamy subway grids and grimy black sidewalks. As I stepped off the metal bus to grassy fields of trees piercing blue, my sinuses unblocked and lungs expanded. The soles of my sneakers sinking into supple earth, I trailed with classmates as Professor Stein pointed and named, “Morella Pennsylvania”, “Quercus Stellata”. I glanced past her narrative to watch a butterfly flitting through cornflowers. Gathered under an oak, notebooks and pencils in hand, we sketched and jotted terms for parts of a leaf she upheld: “petiole”, “sinus”, “lobe”. My heart sinking, I leaned into the flanking, grey bark of a nearby oak, inhaling its musky scent. Drawing my attention to its firm hold of earth and soaring to sky, I took refuge, vowing not to take another science class.
Once conquerors of the natural world, we now live severed from creation.
My friend Darian grew up in Iran. He and his family fled the Iranian Revolution when he was a boy. Years later, considering his religion of birth, he awoke with a dream. In it, he stepped into a mosque and approached elders soft eyed, warm breathed, bowing in devotion. Touched, wanting to join, he reverently tread up the aisle to find his place. Row by row, aspirants’ eyes grew more hardened, breath, sharper until at last he was commanded to perform lifeless, rigid movements. His dream showed him the progression of spiritual tradition through generations. He shuddered at what was once hallowed turned hollow and looked elsewhere for guidance.
We preserve living truth past its shelf life.
In my twenties, I pondered moving to a society where people sustain enlivened connections with the spiritual world, earth, and each other. But disengaging from enculturated ways of my upbringing seemed difficult, if not impossible. So I decided, “I was born into this society. I have a responsibility to it.”
At first, I tried to infuse my vision of a simpler life into the mainstream. I gave away my t.v. and radio, cut up credit cards, walked and biked when possible. With few byways off the beaten path, life was hard. Navigating safe bike paths to buy food was dicey. Getting together with friends became a project. I felt unsourced, like a bird in Manhattan piecing together a nest with twist ties and six pack rings.
Over time, I accepted complexities I’d rather live without, like a bank account and insurance. I discovered undercurrents of folk music, macrobiotic pot lucks, and thrift shops. I partook in community gardening, contra dancing and an anthroposophical study group. I pieced together a life of necessity and community, reaping the fruits of seeds sown by like-minded folks.
Having eaten the camel, the last third of our lives, according to the myth, we can become the wise child. Recovering our innocence and remembering our knowingness, we can share our gifts.
“In India, performers of classical music do not make their public debut until they are in their 40’s. A lifetime of study and spiritual practice is … prerequisite … to be ‘in tune’ with the entire cosmos before rendering music that recapitulates (the) cosmic order.”**
I’ve been tending my inner garden to cultivate fruits for the world. How about you?
While studying at NYU, I was introduced to the Speak Easy, a folk coop on MacDougal Street. I’d been writing songs for a while and soon started performing. Knowing I couldn’t bear a desk job after graduation and wanting to devote time to writing, I prayed nightly for guidance. I dreamt three times of being a teacher.
Teaching is a good fit for my capabilities and creativity. After further studies at Hofstra, I learned of a clinic where I was taught to tutor students with Dyslexia. Loving one-on-one instruction, I withdrew applications to teach in schools. Since then, I’ve tutored, taught in public and private schools and further trained to help students overcome math and writing difficulties and prepare for college entrance exams. Integrating Waldorf, Montessori and other methods, I’ve pieced together traditional and alternative modes. And have written songs and played out as I could.
I’ve come to see Grammar as a way to enliven our understanding of ourselves and our world. I try to show students that nouns name physical and spiritual forms in space, and verbs, creation into being through time. Geometry and numbers are archetypes of patterns and realities behind all processes. I point to these truths to inspire students to delve their realms. I engage learners with exploration and conversation hoping they’ll glean their own understanding, rather than feeding them dry formulas and definitions. I pray for my students nightly to be guided to help them fulfill what they are here to become and bestow.
I have two callings. One to the children I teach and one to the world at large.
Over Christmas vacation, my friend Pete* and I overturned the lawn in my backyard. We cut up branches of trimmed trees and laid them in circular mounds. We layered soil and mulch and planted native and Florida friendly fruit trees and flowers.
Pete says curves, not lines, are natural, allowing energy to flow. Mounds draw in cosmic forces. Buried branches attract worms, replicating forest floor. Our work welcomes nature to settle in.
Growing up, I felt pressed to step from life to the confines of dead doctrine. Like a weed in a cracked sidewalk, I sought sustenance from earth and sky, seeking to break ground. In my garden, students, friends and I can breathe with enlivened creation, watch natural rhythms, and allow ourselves to join its dance.
**The Dances of Universal Peace North American Journal, issue 5, Winter 2006/2007 p 26
* Peter Blake, Home Farm: A Division of Permafarm, Harmonizing urban agriculture with today’s living: email@example.com