on tbt – for plying fierce seas at the ready

Life is a grand ol’ lady-man bound hard for high trouble and low pain, her bold strapping curves rimmed from the outset by our soul-sick desires and spirit-plundering needs and the evanescing relations we yearn so to make and secure but cannot.

Some days s/he rides easy astride all nearsome seas and we coast sweetly by, lured into pleasures benign, amaranthine, while on other days s/he flings mighty roiling waves across us bow to stern, whipping ruddy decks clear of debris, rigging, gear, mud, and us, too, on occasion. In either instance—sweet or hank sailing—it is all too easy to lose our footing and find ourselves off the last boat we called home, reaching for something we know not how to name much less touch. To sally on is failproof, a non-singular grace of existence, breathing in to the very last end no matter what and counting on life alone to haul the next exhale into itself—right to the one moment that it doesn’t—come what may.

Whether we know it or not, feel it or don’t, value it or could not care less, we all stand at the ready in neck-high seas every day, our whole lives little more than single droplets in storm-embowelled walls of tall water. In the gurgling eddies given at random to those born to this world, we can rest and float and forget and story the spin-drifted lot as we flow or surf or are dragged back kicking strong into yon fray, our anchors pulled because we said so or not or something in between and us headed for blue water or not or somewhere beyond in these oh so fierce or placid seas. This is our one colossal recurring miracle, I believe, and worth remembering for one Throwback Thursday: how we all manage—even when we may feel most unready—to stay at the ready, come what may.

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Photo of me rafting the Snake River in Wyoming, months after my children were abducted for the first time.

~

All images and content in this post, as with all on this site are original, subject to copyright, all rights reserved. If you wish to share or post them, please do so with a link to the page on which you found them. Thanks in advance for your consideration. © Hannah Nyala West and pointlastseen.wordpress.com, 2009 — present. (Formal copyright notice on About page and sidebar.)

on montages and life fires

Every death partakes of every death before it, shares in its sorrows and  dwells in its shadows. Every life, though, is unique and has no precedent: it offers to the whole its very own home-brew, its stains, its stings, its lovely meandering hours.

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Those I have loved have been dying on me since I was a small child, and the first deaths were so startling and off-putting that I tucked them into myself and walked on, unable to speak of them or cry or mourn in socially acceptable ways for at least two years (long after everybody else had grieved and moved on). The two-year mark would generally be a watershed, and I would do my crying then, scribbling fast into a notebook every last thing I could remember so’s to have something authentic to hold onto. Whether it was my grandparents or raccoons or horses or dogs, for all my beloveds, I hoarded their sayings, their habits, their photos and their things, and made for them a small altar in my heart and room or the woods which we all haunted. The fires of their lives were kept lit in this way, and I made them keep living for me: I talked to them, listened to them, kept them burning hot inside me and on this earth.

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Home movies provided refuge many a time from grief and, being a visual learner, I always watched before yesterday as if I had one foot in the past and one in the present: laughing some, weeping some, seeing anew how we touched one another on the way through when we had not yet tasted the death that would part us. I loved the old 8- millimeter footage my mother captured of my childhood, adored the VHS tapes I got of our lives as adults, and happily switched to digital recording twelve years ago when a fluffy ball of black and white hair with a pink nose joined our otherwise empty nest. Coober Pedy’s early moves were all captured on camera: wiggle-butted Old English Sheepdog pouncing on tennis balls, navigating stairs, stalking a pot, teaching his people some lessons while testing the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be chewed.

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He was a funny dog, hard-headed and vain. He had no use whatsoever for anything touching his back legs or anything looming ominous in the sky (mechanical cranes were his greatest foes). He didn’t approve of noisy people or lurking behavior. He could back-sass without making a sound, moving his mouth as if barking except not, and doing it so energetically that his chin hairs shook. He ate a calendar one day and gave himself a tummy ache during a book-signing with mom, and followed that up with a long trip home made quite eventful for all involved. He herded whoever showed up: chickens, ducks, turkeys, goats, dogs, cats, and people.

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We forgot to get footage of most of that: we were too busy living. But we captured those early years well, and recently, worried about how quickly he seemed to be declining, I had Costco burn them to DVDs. As a courtesy, their film studios provide three clip montages. We watched those a month ago and laughed ourselves silly over this big fluffy dog, told him about it later, and steeled ourselves for his leaving.

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Whenever we love someone, we get into the habit of each other, and death’s most startling effect is stripping habit of its presence. Films and photos and things, however, let us revisit that, hold onto it. Yesterday, in between digging his grave as he lay there quiet under his heavy downy comforter, we kept expecting him to wake up any moment and make a comment on some aspect of things that wasn’t quite to his standards just yet, but he lay there still. Utterly still, all habits of supervising us having fled to somewhere of which we as yet know nothing. We couldn’t stop it, though, the habit of expecting him to intervene, participate in what was afoot: this was quintessential Coob. Involved. Only now he did not move. There was only the awful stillness and almost no wind. That alone should’ve garnered at least one scowling groan from the OES, but no. In the heat of midday we came indoors and decided to look at the home movies. Straight on it was one thing and fine enough through tear-misted eyes. But the montage?

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We watched one set to violin and piano, and the clips included the two of us and my daughter on a visit home to meet this new pup years ago, then Coob growing out of his pink nose stage alongside his new flock (us). From a well rimmed by sorrows for all who have gone before us, we sat transfixed. I finally found words and a whisper: “It’s as if we are all already dead,” and my husband—this dear man who has been here for every single death, every loss, every new grave, every moment since 2001—nodded, bereft. “I was just about to say that.” Something about the montage had quickened our souls and laid it all on the line, and we saw things differently than either of us has done before. In the larger scheme of existence, we are indeed all already dead, and there’s nought we humans can do about any of that. Ever. So we must get up and get busy with living, with joy, with learning, with giving, with being, with whatever fills us to the brim and beyond. We said this to each other and then headed out to finish the grave.

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As it turned out, we eased Coober Pedy onto his last bedding just as the sun touched the western mountains. Typically he walked round and round and round the bed before settling in just so. In these last months where we’ve had to help him, we cut some corners on those rounds, telling ourselves it was for his benefit. Yesterday we did that in our hearts, long minutes gazing at the hot yellow orb seeming to flow golden into those far-off hills, breathing deeply, trying to do this last thing well enough that it could honor the being who has just left us. We raked the covering soil one last time as the sun disappeared and the wind came up, knowing ourselves, feeling ourselves already fully dead. Coober Pedy always loved the wind. It was in some way his bailiwick and still is. We put away our tools and walked into it, beings afoot, hearts afire for a little while yet here on this earth.

~

on answered prayers and paths ahead

Just two weeks ago, I sat up with him in the yard until the wee hours of that Sunday morning, huddled in an army blanket that would equalize my experience of the cold desert wind with his, covered as he was in his heavy winter coat. Like boiled wool, that hair would get, and it never smelled anything but wool-like. Wool and the heather off a wide gray moor, I thought that night, for the nth time and then some, my hands moving over his coat doing reiki to ease the pain that his meds couldn’t touch. He pressed his head against my leg until he finally fell asleep on my feet, and I sat there and looked at the moon and outright prayed to any being listening or not that somehow this duty would pass from me, this having to serve as the one with the responsibility to choose when to end his life, that somehow it could just happen, peacefully and naturally, praying for some inkling of what else we could do to make his tumor-riddled and arthritic joints ease up, praying while the rest of our little world slept because when there’s not one thing else left to do a person can do worse things than speak to the unhearing skies.

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The next morning, we gave him his summer haircut and a nice hot bath (which he has adored since infancy), and suddenly, he stood up and ran around, stiffly yes, but all on his own. Back legs not moving as well as the front (the growth was on the lower part of his spine), no, but moving. Even cavorting some. Capable of walks on his own four feet and without mom or dad carrying his hindquarters in a sling between us. I didn’t breathe a word of this to anyone, fearful of jinxing it, but suddenly, it seemed as if he’d rallied, as if the reiki at last had done something besides ease his pain and my anguish. He’s been his old self since then, getting up and down at will without our assistance, well enough even that we decided we could spend yesterday with a friend in the city and did it, too. All my worries about our Old English Sheepdog dying too soon were receding. Completely. My writings about him before: this great contrarian soul alongside? Premature. Well-meaning, but premature. Coober Pedy has an ornery streak a mile wider than his namesake, and ornery gives one some umpff for going on strong when all about are dropping like flies done early with fruit season.

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I spent part of last night figuring out what we could do to build a better cooling shade structure for him for the upcoming summer, believing the rally was permanent and thus we could carry on. I was glad I’d gone to spend time with our friend in that hot noisy city, glad I’d  stumbled onto another friend there from far away, glad we’d made it to the little shop for accordions nearby, glad we don’t live there but happy to have been and returned, and I gave no thoughts to sorrow last night. Everybody was fine and sleeping on our return, even me. Then this morning the truth of it all hit.

What was happening, likely even to some extent while Dad and I were away during the day, but definitely under these night skies so healing, so endless, so dreamless as I slept unaware and unpraying. For when I awoke this morning, our great contrarian soul alongside was no longer alongside or anywhere this side of eternity. His body—so faithful to me all along—lay stone cold dead, not waiting quietly for me to wake up, no, but gone. For good this time. So my prayers from two weeks ago were answered, it seems, me stupidly, raggedly begging the abyss that my cowardice not have to be tasked with making the decision to end his life and to please grant me some understanding of how to do best by him meantime and to ease his pain, and this dearest of all my fellow contrarians ever has finally gone onto the paths just ahead and I did not one thing to assist. Not one.

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I detest the saying RIP, rest in peace. Can’t say it, never have done without feeling a little ill. I don’t want you to rest in peace, Coober Pedy. You weren’t about rest while here except in rare moments of lolling for effects unspecified, and I cannot imagine you opting for such a sidelong approach to being now. Don’t go rest high on that damn blessed mountain, either. Your work here is done, yes, and you’ve earned a release from it all, from us, from keeping track of us, from trying to herd us into paths that were safe and straightforward, but resting? Not that. Please, not that.

As I sit here now, I tell my soul that you’re doing as always, following your breeding and instincts and your fierce love and sense of responsibility for your pack: you’re going ahead and I am certain that, if consciousness remains to those who walk on thus, you are looking back over your shoulders right now, pausing, urging us to come along, to not tarry, to get with the herd and march forward together. Carry on, my dear good and faithful friend. Carry on. Weave and bob on that trail, showing us (your usually errant charges) the way, pressing ever forward. Carry on. Don’t rest in some half-cocked version of nobody’s peace. Walk lively into that long night. I’ll keep bringing up the rear as always and, in the blink of one eye one day soon, I’ll be alongside you again. That is a promise. We’ll find the far edges of that world together, too, just as we did this one. One day soon, Coober Pedy. One day soon.

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 ~

on approaching the past through Katrina – a crowd-sourcing plea

This is straight copy of  a Facebook post I made just now (13 May 2014) , and I’m putting it here in hopes more people will see it. I know that commenting is much easier to do on Facebook than on WordPress, so if you want to weigh in but not here, please feel free to do so on that post. I will be compiling the list of resources by this fall and, if you’d like a copy, please let me know via the contact form on my Connect page (here on this blog) or via a backchannel Facebook message. [Link to my FB.]

TO Everybody (teachers of history, lovers or haters of history, anybody who’s ever had to deal with history and found it hard going): I’m going to be teaching the last half of the U.S. history survey online (part-time) again next year, and I’ve come up with an approach that I think might work, but I would love to hear any suggestions you might have on sources, readings, etc. 

My students are a diverse group: many first-years with a wide range of preparation, most of them work (some full-time), and majors/interests tend to cluster into natural sciences/resource management, criminal justice, music, elementary ed, and undecideds. I’ve taught the survey as a survey (chronological w/content lectures), but the online setting means students have very little patience for long lectures, and the class quickly breaks out into some really engaged students and some who are gone. I’ve tried it with a professional skills component attached to the survey and that worked pretty well, as did very short content lectures tied to readings and analysis of primary sources. I’ve also tried the uncoverage method (thematic approach) but found it unhelpful because students need a foundation in what actually happened across the period being studied first. So I’m mulling a hybrid course for the fall.

I’m planning to start with a mini unit on Hurricane Katrina: Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun and the documentary Trouble the Waters and asking students to interview one peer and one adult whom they already know about that storm. Most will not know much about Katrina or New Orleans (which can become part of the takeaway). Then we will tackle our survey at its normal departure point (Reconstruction) and come forward (using primary sources, mini content lectures, a text as a workbook, etc.), but they will work all semester to build an individual final project around New Orleans, the nation, and Katrina. My goal is to have history matter to them while they gain some skills in its manners of thinking and tunneling into a place and set of questions. Issues of race and class (which are typically so bloody difficult to teach in places that don’t ‘see’ it) will be central and unavoidable. The environment, public policy (from local to national levels incl. homeland ‘security’), and policing strategies will be critical; cultural practices (like music) can help lure them in as well.

To that end, I need to compile a really good list of sources for them to start with. Not just scholarly articles, but general audience readings like newspaper and magazine articles, music, etc. Anything that I can make available online is a bonus, but the key thing is to create a set of materials to which they can go to expand their present understanding of Katrina. Then over the course of the semester I’ll include in their weekly prep tiny case studies of what was going on in New Orleans at critical periods. I’ve got lots of material for that sort of thing *before* the Civil War (because that’s my period!), and I grew up about a hundred miles north of NOLA (which means I know quite a bit about the city in my lifetime), but I’ve not been systematic about this and so could really use any suggestions you might have. Any that have already worked well in the classroom, yes, but also any that just helped you to get a better bead on NOLA and Katrina. (It most definitively does NOT need to be ‘history’ or just ‘academic’!)

Crowd-sourcing, I believe they call this, and I’ll be happy to properly compile and share the list with everyone who responds when it’s ready to go (September). Pretty please? And thank you in advance!

~

on tying ourselves to the cosmos until

Sand-strewn winds  howl across this lonesome valley, locking down our usual views of rugged mountains rimming every horizon near and far with flying debris and dust-clogged air that pummels and then whips your hide when you chance it, so we mostly don’t. We’ve had weeks, even months of this weather now, and it feels apocalyptic, testing our commitment to a minimalist homestead in a desert that’s outlasted many a previous like-minded soul. I find the raging winds a comfort—data for my hope that we’ll never be overrun and turned into a city—but that is because I can retreat behind sturdy walls where hearing is my primary sense for engagement except for memories of stiller nights.

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Sunset found us huddled indoors watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, halfway through, a first for me. When the series originally aired, I didn’t have a TV or any habit of it. TV was a sin in the church of my childhood and, while I disagreed with them about nearly everything else, by the time I was an adult and checked it out for myself, I thought it would rot my brain and didn’t imbibe except on rare occasions. Even when it came into the house of my first marriage (the next year), I couldn’t connect with the technology: bored, I would fall asleep if I didn’t create mental tasks to focus on instead (thus relying on the same technique I’d used to survive evangelical sermons and prayer meetings). Eventually my children and I had a TV I sometimes watched and a VCR and at some point I had some understanding that Cosmos existed, but I never got around to watching it.

In the manner that cultural illiteracy comes so easily to most of us, the required-for-Gen-Ed-credits astronomy course I took in college was taught by a knucklehead who marched around my lab table so many times carrying an orange and intoning “The Earth moves around the Sun, repeat after me: the Earth moves around the Sun” that I spent a considerable part of every hour in that room wondering if I should just go on and take him out with a sharpened pencil and risk the consequences. I got an A because I remembered whatever I saw and reprised it on exams with ease, but I hated the subject with a fiery passion and decided that, if I managed to make it out of that course without winding up in prison on account of a pencil, I would just look at the sky and enjoy the mystery. A curiosity about physics and Enlightenment science lured me permanently into that realm about then, but I’ve stuck with the old thinkers, the long dead for the long past, and with indigenous teachers for the now. Sagan wasn’t either one, so he stayed off my map. I work for a living and am stingy with how I spend my limited time. (Which is another way by which smart people are readily made illiterate.)

Somebody I trust, however, finally convinced me that we should watch this series, and oh, how grateful I am already for that! How farseeing Sagan was, how prescient, how like so many before and since who have taken the contemplation of the stars and planets seriously! How much wiser might we all be if we ensured that everyone who wanted to do something similar could participate knowledgeably in these conversations! As I listen to Sagan’s sonorous voice now (concurrently enrolled in four MOOCs on the physics and mathematics of the solar system), it comes strong to me that, if we ever wish to solve the greatest problems of our times, we must reckon better with the fact that we’re fighting the wrong battles on planet earth some days. Social inequalities, environmental destruction, dimwitted political leadership, and exploitative corporate plunderings are intimately connected to a people’s lack of vision, disconnection from mystery and learning alike, and inability to wonder while we work ourselves to death. Vision. Mystery. Learning. Wonder. Work that does not pervade breathing 24/7/365. We need ’em back. Now. They’re just about all we have to stand between us and our looming abysses of illiteracy.

Of course I adore and am daily grateful for Neil DeGrasse Tyson and his Cosmos—a few minutes of which I have seen but then turned off until I could watch Sagan’s first. I am grateful for Tyson’s efforts to rekindle curiosity about science and astronomy and physics while batting down ignorant, pseudo-religious, anti-science pontifications on  a regular basis. I am daily grateful for so many indigenous leaders who have steadily stewarded their peoples’ understandings for the young coming on and who have welcomed people like me with our questions; daily grateful for any spiritual folk of any ilk who ask questions not designed to ensure the killing of those who ask them not or otherwise: daily grateful for the hundreds of millions of regular folks who get no air time or honor or credit but still get up every day and work ceaselessly to make a small life in conditions of abject poverty created on purpose by elites and organizations with more money than good sense or compassion. But if we are ever to have more viable visions worthy of our home in this universe on this particular planet, we need more ways to connect ourselves steadily to the cosmos. And, toward that end, I am also deeply and daily grateful for the likes of MIT and Yale and Brown and Wesleyan and the veritable slew of other institutions who are making such knowledge more available to more of us for free.

But Carl Sagan’s Personal Voyage is a fine and far more accessible introduction, and I find myself wishing that small children could see it until it becomes a background track of their over-burdened, over-scheduled, over-tested lives. I’m pretty sure that, if someone had stopped me in my tracks 20 years ago and had me watch the whole thing end to end, I would have done several things differently, starting somewhere in the middle of the first episode and not likely ending yet.

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We face so many existential threats as human beings anymore. The answers for them are all about us, littering the fields of our endeavours just as this sandstorm seeds this desert tonight: nearly everything is moving too fast for us to get a good grip on it and, whenever you do manage to take a wavering step outside, you do it knowing somebody’s fixin’ to take a full-throated swing at your hide. We could do worse than be reminded that in all times and places known to our species thus far, this has been true for seekers of knowledge. Intolerance, ignorance, and pure de ol’ meanness stride across every generation seeking to slap down those who question, those who wonder, those who want to drill down beneath the pablum of propaganda and conjured deaths posing as all there is or can be. Meantime there are all these grand and lively traditions of inquiry, all under daily threat now, yes, but still fertile, still questing: mathematics and physics and astrophysics and histories and anthropologies and stories and teachings and songs and so, so many more.

I am re-hitching my soul’s wagon to the cosmos, to inquiry, to the search for knowledge that inspires living visions and humility and just enough grit to hang on until. The wind will lie down once again for a spell, the sun and the moon will ease back into view, the stars will grace these night skies and fall just rarely enough that we’ll sit by our tiny fire and light up the valley with our astonished whispers. The planet will go on. Until is a long, long time away, so very near to here.

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~

All images and content in this post, as with all on this site are original, subject to copyright, all rights reserved. If you wish to share or post them, please do so with a link to the page on which you found them. Thanks in advance for your consideration. © Hannah Nyala West and pointlastseen.wordpress.com, 2009 — present. (Formal copyright notice on About page.)

on grading, purgatory, and what the space-time continuum needs

I dreamt I was dying, knew it, and was being sent to some special purgatory for grading. No matter how hard I try to turn this part of my job into something meaningful for both the students and me, no matter how many tactics I use to enliven the practice and fill it with compassion and my own thirst for non-hierarchical learning (which means students have significant control over their work and evaluations), no matter how determinedly I try to turn these fleeting opportunities to kindle curiosity and compassion toward the past present into moments of shared wonder at and openness to what little we can know of all that has come before us? I still find grading the equivalent of driving industrial-grade steel railroad ties through the eye sockets of my soul.

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Perhaps it is how we use grades in my disciplines and too many others, as shields between the knowers and those who know not, deflecting wisdom and carrying right on anyhow? Perhaps it is the evanescent and glittering truth that what is most valuable about learning history or anthropology can never be captured in any test or essay. Perhaps it is that, in the humanities at least, we have the opportunity to be genuine companions on the many diverging roads to human knowledge, but then expertise and the power to wield grades—months of another person’s efforts distilled into one blissfully idiotic number or letter—rear their head and mock all that we do, all that we say we value, all that we could be if only we could find wiser ways to arrange ourselves around knowledge and learning.

I should quickly add: I’ve no problem whatsoever with grades in disciplines whose graduates eventually build things like bridges or cars or tractors or cut open live beings and sew them back up again to be let loose on our streets, but the humanities and social sciences transcend all that (or could, if we could only summon the courage to let them) and traipse willfully undeterred through the nightmarish and unbelievably lovely, ineffable spaces of the human animal and our terrifying capacities for great evil and great good alike, and for these fields—so necessary now, so nurturing of soul and broken societal spirits—grades are wholly unsuited for the fray. Grades in such fields are about managing the industry, running people through the intellectual abattoirs that pass for education in this world and sending them out to conquer the rest of it thus. And so I wrestle with the ethics of the practice and my conscience when I grade, and it is a mighty battle every time. But this is the first time I’ve dreamt—or even considered the possibility—of such an activity awaiting me in the afterlife.

I talk straight out to the universe when anything bestirs me deeply, just stare into the maw and speak up. It is a way of telling myself, of course, since I’ve no evidence that anything out there is listening. So this is what I have to say about this morning’s dream: if there is existence beyond this one, y’all need to let me skip grading purgatory. By many light years. I should be planted in a far, far corner from such doings and not allowed even a visit. It would be best not to let me remain conscious of such practices being made so normative that most people don’t even question them, too. If memory excision on this matter is available, I should probably have that procedure performed the very second I exit this planet as well. For if I wind up there after this one little life is over with any lingering consciousness and memories of grading purgatories here? I will circle my every last cell into a fury so great that the explosion rips the space-time continuum apart. Everywhere. On that side of being and this one and any others ever to come. And that is a promise. Y’all will be picking up pieces of soul dust from here to forever.

The idea of ultimate resistance, so improbable, so nutty, so utterly “Swing-something-at-all-the-windmills, y’all” cheers me up now as I turn to my last set of tasks on this year’s evaluations of student work. My heart is made lighter just to think of a world in which grading no longer exists as a cultural practice because somebody broke the space-time continuum in two on its account. That—like every other notion that ever comes to me when I am stuck in some societal pattern that’s long since served its unholy purpose—I will put straight into the service of leaching compassion and love for learning out of everything I do for these students as they leave. It’ll likely all still get lost in that one idiotic number and letter that comes on the heels of everything else that came before, yes, but it’s still going to be there.

Resistance to the machines of our societies is not futile. It only appears that way until somebody comes up with a better idea for how not to be so backward and mean and call it normal. I feel in my bones that, if humanity manages to survive itself over the next few decades, somebody’s going to have figured out how to restructure learning in the humanities so we don’t wind up with a single number or letter as the period on the whole endeavor. I feel it, I yearn to still be alive when it happens, I pray for it even (since this would be a much better use of my cells than splitting a continuum I know nought of!): and now I trundle off to finish my grading. Lighter of heart, for writing of anything (even one’s own complicities with long-broken systems) makes it easier to bear.

~

All images and content in this post, as with all on this site are original, subject to copyright, all rights reserved. If you wish to share or post them, please do so with a link to the page on which you found them. Thanks in advance for your consideration. © Hannah Nyala West and pointlastseen.wordpress.com, 2009 — present. (Formal copyright notice on About page.)