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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Faith, Education, Philosophy, Psychology, and Influence

          The one thing about life is that we never know who we affect and how we affect them. I remember an English teacher who taught me many of the things that would go on to make me want to be an English teacher myself. Had it not been for him, my college and life experience would have been completely different. Ron Borkert had a certain style about him that people either really loved or that didn’t jive with their sensibilities at all. Unfortunately, most people only remember the dissenters, and Mr. Borkert was prone to have to wrestle with their attitudes (I have felt it, too). However, on the day of his funeral, I hope he was looking down because he truly influenced so many people, and many of them were there to wave goodbye to him one more time.

I don’t agree with mornings. If I had it my way, I would sleep through them and wake up when I did.
Down with alarm clocks!” I screamed to myself.
Earlier that morning, I returned from the night spent working in a Cabelas warehouse that I worked in for a summer to earn money in teaching’s slow time. As the alarm sounded, I moved on through the surreal confines of my bedroom. The heat was already stifling and it wasn’t even 7AM when I went to sleep. I had set the alarm clock for 10AM and the hope was that I would try not to contemplate the day ahead of me as my body crashed into the mattress and drifted into a soundless world of nothingness.
            I barely blinked into sleep and the pulsing beeps were soon registering. I sat up. Under other circumstances, I could have re-evaluated whether or not that I wanted to wake up, but there was no choice here. I sleepwalked into a pair of what was once a semi-nice pair of black dress pants and slid my arms into a gray shirt. I threw on a tie the looked like it belonged with the ensemble and grabbed my dress coat, and despite being still dazed from lack of sleep, I drove up to the stately home, found a parking spot, and walked pointedly to the door.
            There were people congregating at the door, but only a few people were inside. The rows of chairs set out for those people looking to pay their respects were slightly filled, but I avoided them and walked over to the far end of the room where the body lay with hands folded across his chest, asleep in a surreal moment. I looked down, and instantly, I could not stop my tears. Nothing on his face looked real. The cheeks didn’t hold any of the discoloration that they did for the past 9 years of his life that I knew him. There was no energy and smile on his face. There was no strain, physical discomfort, or exhaustion either; to be honest, there was no Mr. Borkert in this moment.
            The “Chuff Chuff” that my friend Pete and I once knew was no more. The sounds of Thoreau, Whitman, and Dickinson experiencing the train for the first time as our teacher’s voice made the noises of the mid-1800s experiences that he imagined to have happened are now gone. The thought of him experiencing his own toy train collection was no more. The discussion of Judy, Ella, Frank, and Barbara had vanished into the passing moments of time. There was no more call to read Love and Death in the American Novel.
            There was only “the Emperor of Ice Cream.”
            If I had tried to stop all of Auden’s clocks to let people know of the dying, I would have been unsuccessful, so I didn’t even bother. From the moment I heard my own student Vince tell me of Mr. Borkert’s passing, I was struck in an expression of confusion. We all knew it was coming in how we saw his health fail, but how could it be so real? I know that death is a part of life, but why him when there are so many other lives that have nothing to offer just floating through the world in an endless cycle of eat, poop, sleep, repeat?
            These things may sound callous, but they are real feelings in the cycle of grief. Mr. Borkert was the first person I had known since 1994 to die. Call it being young or lucky, but I had avoided so much of death, especially when I was not able to say goodbye to my 2 grandmothers when they died in 1993 and 1994. The distance of being stationed overseas. Now, I wasn’t so lucky anymore.
            With Mr. Borkert, there were moments around cafeteria dining tables with people who also knew him, which were spent discussing how “it” was coming. I had seen how tired and sweaty that he looked as he went about his daily business. I had done my part to help my first teaching mentor to go about his daily activities bringing food to his table so that he didn’t have to walk to get it. I had tried to express to him a feeling that I was trying to be what he was in my own way, with my own outlooks, and a similar desire for the perfection and struggle to succeed that he had wanted from his own students. When I sought his advice, it seemed that there was something there. However, when I said hello in passing, it felt like he was completely distant and ready to sleep.
In the end, that was what he did.
He was so young, relatively speaking of course, but he wasn’t at the end of life. His life had just ended from years of living. The parts that made his machine run had just quit under the stress and strain of running too long in the red, and yet, that wasn’t the real end. The real end was the scorching sun of summer beating down at 100° in the July heat as he no longer could make it to work to fulfill his life’s passion. He had to give up teaching, and within the week, he was dead.
Nobody knew for sure when. There was the last moment that someone had seen him, and then there was the moment that someone came to his apartment to check on him and couldn’t get in, and so the person had to contact those who were able to enter in to take his body from the apartment.
Thinking about it in hindsight, I can hear the sounds of a cat meowing in confusion, as its loving friend who took such great care of him was no longer noticing him. I can hear the sobs of pain and loss as a fellow friend is no more.

dying is fine)but Death
wouldn't like
Death if Death

            This is because it’s not good. For all that e.e. cummings says about the miraculous nature of a passing into a new world, there is no “toodle loo” from this lover of poetry and prose as there was from Allen Ginsberg. There was only the rock hard skin that now composes his hand. Rigor mortis has set in. The embalming fluid has done its job. The teacher I used to know is no longer real, Ron Borkert.
            You simply were someone powerful and great, but that person is gone and replaced with "this." You are now in a new state of no more, and I cannot stop crying, so I have to talk to your friends that I once knew from the moments that you introduced me to them at a lunch table so long ago. I forget their names since those moments have lost purpose from what they once could have held.
            And when it was done, I walked away from the funeral, and I chose not to look back, thinking only about how we fell out of touch with one another in the years when our interests became too different to sustain a friendship. Nevertheless, I remember the performances and the advice. Almost 20 years ago, it feels like an eternity, but I still remember it. Even in the decade I knew of the living you, there was an eternity and a host of changes in both of us, but that's OK. I'll always remember 1997-1998 and those English classes.
            If I could, I’d talk about something literary with you, but I can’t. It’s too late for that now, so I'll just go on being me.
            With that, the sad reality is that my teacher was lying dead on that slab of wood and fabric. He was held up for all who once knew him and had found out that he had died. All that was left now was to pay their respects before the body vanished into the earth.
When it comes to reaching younger people and the masses, there is no way to advertise funerals, unless you’re inclined to look for those things, so it’s all about word of mouth getting the message out for people who die in an early or untimely fashion.
But somehow, they did.
For all those who learned from his knowledge, experience, charm, and personality, there were voices and tears to be shed. All the same, there were those people like my friend Pete who couldn’t make the journey since they didn’t want to see what had become of this great man.
For those of us who had attended the funeral, besides me, there was a feeling of duty in being there. I spoke briefly to another teacher who had learned from him in the same way that I had learned from him. His words would resonate more than the distant relations would since they brought the only “true details” up about Mr. Borkert. As for the rest of the room, they were now just a series of linked relatives, work, and church affiliations and little else.
            All I could do was try unsuccessfully to hold back tears.
            Voices that I didn’t know would ask how I knew him. There was only one thing that I could answer: if it wasn’t for the 5 classes of his that I had taken over 1997 and 1998, I would have never become a teacher. I would have never found my purpose for life at Reading Area Community College and I would have never been able to take his knowledge out into real life. I would have never been able to find all of those books to read and to teach myself when I left the classroom.
            I stayed in that room for 20 minutes before I left. I didn’t want to see him buried, which didn't feel like an option for anyone other than his family. I was once close to him, but I was never that close to him, so I left on my own. Besides, I didn’t want to sit and hear the words of a man who didn’t really know him as he tried to eulogize my teacher for something other than what he was to me. Call it selfish or see it as allowing other selves to have their moment, but my moment was over, and now it was time to go and mediate on what the meaning of this death was.
            And that was the message that I had tried to speak out in my class the night before to people who weren’t interested in the story was that one of my mentors was dead. But sadly, it wasn’t registering to them, and while it managed to resonate with those there in that funeral home, it wasn’t enough to carry over his past life into the present and future since this man was never really able to touch these people in a personal way.
As I moved on, I wondered who really knew what he offered to the world. Surely, Ron Borkert himself never knew. Too many times in our conversations, he only reflected on the voices of those who scorned him for being tough or for being eccentric. Occasionally, his disciples would crawl to his side and pay tribute to him with their presence and their dutiful hope of becoming as wise as their master – that was me and many others who were captivated by his personality – but eventually, they would all vanish and leave the beginning stages of their learning process and head off for a 4-year college that would make them worldlier and wiser in a less personal setting, and thus, they would forget their origins and leave the old man to wonder exactly when the next student would come along since the amazing ones are so few and far between.
Sadly, with the difference in age and mindset between himself and his students, these opportunities were becoming fewer and far between in his later days. It seems like they can for many of us if we let them (hence, we should never get too old and out of touch).
            And yet in this moment, I knew from the presence of the few people that were there that just as he had said that we only ever have a few real friends in life, this mass presence would have made him openly weep at the honesty of the instant, for the truth was he had many people that he inspired.

“The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

            At some point at least 12 years ago, I talked to a high school student’s father about writing. As it turned out, he wanted to write a book about the Bible, and my comment was along the lines that the Bible is the Bible and there are many books about it, but really, there is only need for our preferred translation. Thus, the key was to be unique and to put a personal slant on things without just rewriting the original. Thus, I wanted him to write how he felt about it.
            Well right before Christmas, he and I talked when I bought a cake at his wife's awesome bakery, and he was there, so we started talking, and it turned out he wrote his book, and he turned it (Meet with God Daily Devotional) into a series of short reflections (3/4 to 1 full page each) about his faith and his life. Looking at what he did, it is an impressive feat. Even if this were to just be a blog, he did it for 365 straight days, and he kept it up. He planned it out, and he executed it, and he put it out there for the world to see how one regular guy makes his life better through faith. Many of the days have personal or religious significance, and all of the days have a Bible verse as well as a personal reflection. Here, he put his faith simply and on the line for anyone who wants to read it. He wasn’t trying to wax philosophically or be more intelligent and wise than thou. Instead, he shared the faith that worked for him, and for this, it works for the reader, too. The love he has for his family clearly shows, and his humor also works for those who will want to read it. While this is a book based on one man’s personal religious devotion, you might feel that it would help to know him, but even if you don’t know him, you truly walk away with a sense that this guy is doing something right, and for this, his devotional is something that you can read a pass a day or a couple passages a day.
           For me, what it really works well as is a how to book to personalize something that could be so lofty. Instead, by thinking individually, you can own the maxims of faith included inside. Because of this, you do end up walking away like you know him even if you’re separated by an entire country’s length. As it's shorter than a homily, it allows you to have your own discussions with yourself about things, so it has the potential to be great stuff.
            As a result of supporting a fellow writer, I’m happy to have an autographed copy and to be the guy who inspired this (see January 5th!). I wish him lots of luck in his sales. 
            I have always been fascinated by the devotedly religious. Malcolm Gladwell has felt the same thing, and in many ways, like him, the people who impress me brought me back from a lack of connection to religion beside some impersonal thing.
            In the past, this lost feeling of religion has felt like an omnipotent policeman or a king in the sky who watched to make sure we went to church on Sundays or took a Saturday night special. Other times, it felt like a series of laws on how to be or what we could oppress people with. 

           Growing up, my nana was very religious, and for years, religion became something to wrestle with since church always felt so "boring" and "confining" while sitting through it. Nevertheless, for daydreaming my way through church, I was never atheistic. Yes, there were times I felt agnostic, but I never doubted God’s existence; however, I did feel a sense of how the rote memorization of all things in the Bible didn’t always have to be history, but rather, they could be parables or advice to live by. This caused me to spatially and reflectively move away from organized religion.
            Nevertheless, being baptized Catholic, I was inducted into the club for all time’s sake, whether I liked it or not. 
            That being said, I did try other churches now and again. I remember one Baptist church in England when I was in the Air Force. Lots of Americans would go there for their dose of fire and brimstone. I stopped quickly because religion isn’t listening to someone tell me, “If you don’t agree, that’s fine; you’ll just go to Hell.” And yes, they did say those exact words. Personally, if I want that kind of thing, I can check out Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” That and all of the religious intolerance that led to the genocide at Awatovi and the witch killings at Salem and the devastation of the ArawakIndians is so ugly to me, but it is as much what I want to see as faith and religion as 19 assholes initiating the actions on 9.11. Fundamentalist ideology, i.e. that psychotic break from reality in the name of hatred and murder, is as much all of religion as Donald Trump is all of America (or Hillary Clinton for that matter).
               “I used to think God was angry, too, but not anymore! He used to jump on me like a wild bird and dig his claws into my head. But then one morning, he came to me. He blew over me like a cool breeze and said, ‘Stand up.’ And here I am.”
            While Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ doesn’t represent Christian religion to many faithful people (fair enough), I do like this quote. It’s a good place to begin religious exploration because it represents that God doesn’t have to be all “do this; do that.” Sometimes, he can just be, and we can love him and devote ourselves to him for his works, like John Muir did. While cathedrals and churches can be beautiful, nothing is better than the mountains, deserts, waterfalls, oceans, and canyons that make up the natural earth.

            I remember being asked when I filled out a job questionnaire to teach English at a Catholic school to answer 15 or so questions about how I feel close to God. Obviously, to answer like Muir is to be a heathen, and I caused great worries to the bishop who read my honest answers. Who knew that the answer is how many times a day do you pray. I surely didn't.
            If he asked me now, I would tell him that the minimal answer is 1 (another answer he probably wouldn't like), but often, I find time and reasons to be thankful for where I am and what I’ve been given, even if it’s just clear traffic and no accidents on the way to work in the morning.
            At the time, all I had was that I hadn’t been to church in ages until the job fell into me. Had they given the questions to me pre-hiring, my life would have been completely different because they would have surely went with ANYONE else.
            When I went to college, prior to the days of teaching at that school, I went to a Catholic college in the Reading area (what got me the job at the other school). After transferring from the community college I started at, I had 4 local choices. Penn State Berks was an option, but I’m definitely not a fan of the Sacred Nittany Lion or their football program, since ever (this has nothing to do with Jerry Sandusky, but he doesn't help any). Hence, PSU was out. My friend Brian said that I could go to Kutztown and be a big fish in a small pond (did I really want to do that?), so that was out. That left Albright or Alvernia. At Albright, the 90 pound girl who gave me the tour loved everything way too much. It didn’t even feel real when she ecstatically extolled the virtues of a flag for every country represented by a student. As for Alvernia, the tour at least felt real, if not a little low-key, so I ended up there despite the girl only giving tours for beer money.
            Fortunately, my decision allowed me to meet a couple great teachers. One of these was Sister Jacinta Respondowska. She taught a philosophy class from a religious perspective, and the book that they used was called Fully Human, Fully Alive. I don’t remember much from it the time that we read it in class, but I do remember her loving the book and making it a part of her own philosophical books.
            Looking back on this class, which I did like, I always tell my students how the quote I remember most from her was that she once told me, “You’ve read a lot of books, but you read all the wrong books” (I would have either been reading Kerouac's Visions of Gerard or The Last Temptation of Christ). Most people would be upset to be told something like that, but I couldn’t be annoyed by something that is done with good intentions. Just being in the presence of this woman whose arm would whip around at lightning speed to draw circles to prove the existence of God was enough to know that she was wise, genuine, and most definitely worth listening to.
            In life, wee’re not always able to be ready for things at the time we get them. Sometimes, we need to write them down for later. Like my 11th grade English teacher (Ann Wanner) and my friend from England days (Andrew), who both would name check lots of things, I took down the names of books for later and came back to things like The Scarlet Letter, Slaughterhouse 5, and The Plague later.  
            In the end, they made me who I am.
            In the same way, after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I contacted Sister Jacinta to talk about what happened and how important she was to my being in a better mindset to be able to handle this thing I was faced with. I also told her that I was reading John Powell's Fully Human, Fully Alive, and I should say in writing this now that it was much better when I was ready for it. The concepts of vision therapy were in some degree things that I was applying to my life with Parkinson's, but there were also other things I got out of it (such as the meaning of life – to enjoy the ride of life, but to understand that enjoy isn’t all about joy). There is a fair bit of psychology in it to include Victor Frankl, whose Logotherapy ideas are just bombshells in my life. In addition, it talked about Gestalt Therapy and finding peace and joy in life.
            The key was to balance joy and meaning with understanding the challenge. By reflecting and preparing, we can wire ourselves to handle the ups and downs that life throws at us. In the end, if we choose to stay positive, we can guide our life to better places and defeat the neurotic state that is the world we exist in.

            For maxims like this, I really liked the book this time, and I’m really lucky I met this teacher back around early 2000. Were it not for her, I wouldn't have large parts of the arsenal I used to battle back against my condition. 
            Who knew that 17 years later, someone from our past could be someone in our present that we want to seek out for having an influence on us (that said, she did seek me out several years ago when she wrote her book, so it wasn't completely out of the blue)?
            I tend to read many books at the same time. Unless a book really rocks me and I can’t put it down, I find that I tend to read several bits and pieces books before bed, absorbing a chapter here or there (like I am doing with William Zinsser's On Writing Well, which I am using to teach an independent study). In this, in addition to a little bit of the Reinert book and the Powell book, I’m also re-reading Tolstoy’s A Confession, which I haven’t read since I was doing my senior thesis in college (on the existential dilemma). At the time, I was all about the world of existential philosophy (as opposed to the bass), and I read a fair bit of stuff on these philosophers and some by them. I remember Nietzsche being pretty straight forward and good for the one-liners while Heidegger was just someone to get lost in (he definitely wouldn't be a hit at parties with his obscure thoughts on time and being). Sartre had his one-liners, and they worked, but Being and Nothingness was better served as a doorstop than a cover to cover beach reading moment. As a result, I ended up with Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling for my major touchstone point out of the big 4 philosophers. I will say that I did remember liking the book, but like much heavy philosophy, I was a little bit in and out for my own good. Nevertheless, William Barrett’s Irrational Man was incredible, and my time with Dostoevsky and Faulkner was also something I was very thankful for.
            However, out of all of these books that fell into these philosophical moments, I liked Tolstoy’s short stories and autobiographical stuff the best, so in exploring happiness, meaning, and truth in what I need to do to overcome the mental toll that is Parkinson’s, it seems like no surprise that I’m back searching for clues to purpose in being able to see life as a road to enjoy, both for its challenges and joys.
            A Confession isn’t an easy read. Much of it deals with Tolstoy’s lack of meaning and depression that caused him to be pushed toward suicide before he found faith to live and to be. Eventually, he finds meaning in his faith, but it’s the journey to get there, which is the story. Like St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, there are things to be confronted and felt, which must be acknowledged.
            Reading it, I think about the things I need to confess and overcome to be better as a person. When I'm done with my thoughts on this, I think about all of the changes that I've already made and how fortunate I am to be in a better place, even if I had to get a progressive deteriorating neurological condition to attain some of these truths.
            In my own life, I find that challenge of faith and meaning is important. What is my purpose? As a husband, life is easy. It's all about love, understanding, time, direction, and flowers.
            On that note, I did stop to get flowers for my wife last night.
            By profession, I am a teacher, so what must I educate as many people as possible to be able to do?
Personally, I feel very motivated in teaching this term with the book Pursuing Happiness as our text’s supplemental readings. So far, we’ve done Matthieu Ricchard’s Alchemy of Suffering, the Tao te Ching, the Dhammapada, and the Dalai Lama’sunderstandings. We had a great night of discussions last night. Tuesday, we resume our discussion again in a different class teaching the same thing. At some points, I feel like I should just let them talk about this for 2.5 hours a class, but then I remember we need to learn how to write about it, too, so we go off to prewriting, grammar, MLA, and other assorted English things.
However, for what we can't turn the class into, if those who speak about our topics and take philosophy and psychology in are a sign of what I can expect to read in their essays, I see good things coming. For me, this creates a sense of purpose and meaning that goes beyond meaning. It shows my personal connection to living life as a "parkie" spread into their own plans to overcome the obstacles that fall in their ways.
Nevertheless, for all of the good, it also creates a challenge when I’m teaching and so many people want to talk and I’m too oblivious to see the hands raised in front of me.
It’s not you; it’s me. Really, it’s me!  Please don't be mad at me or take it personally!
So next week, we’ll play again, and it will be the Bhagavad Gita, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Epictetus’s Enchiridion. It’s neat to be able to talk about really radical theories that are 180° opposite of Western thinking or modern existences. It’s awesome to see when they get the overlap, and it great to see that they understand how hard it is to attain these deeper levels of contentment and want to strive for them.
If nothing else, they see happiness without the always happy clown party. They experience enjoying life without 100% joy. They acknowledge the fleeting moments of greatness and ecstatic wonder and how they can still have meaning when we realize that those Kodak Picture Moments were ages ago and have long since vanished from our present. Our futures will not replicate them, but somehow, they are essential touchstones in our life to how we have gone from here to there.
I like that.
Everything begins with reflection on things. We open ourselves up to learning and wonder. We think about how we can express this in speech and writing. I know that not everyone will be ready yet, but we’ll get there. Oh yes, we will arrive if we work at it.
For the rest who might not be ready for it, I hope they scribble some ideas down on paper to read at some night in their mid-forties when they can figure out how to wire themselves differently if the poop storm comes down. Whatever happens, I can at least know that I got some wheels turning, and I’m learning a lot from them, too… maybe more than I’m teaching them.
Go figure!

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