Saturday, January 28, 2012


A drum found on the edge of the Delaware Bay.

God, I know nothing, my sense is all nonsense,
And fear of You begins intelligence;
Does it end there? For sexual love, for food,
For books and birch trees I claim gratitude,
But when I grieve over the unripe dead
My grief festers, corrupted into dread,
And I know nothing. Give us our daily bread.

Donald Hall, Old and New Poems, used without permission

Late January, and though warm enough to get the bees about, we still need light, more light, to keep us all alive. And not all of us will get through the winter.

I stumble upon death along the bay's edge--the detritus of uncountable lives lost accented by the stray wing of a gull licked by the edge of high tide today.

Still, a honey bee found it worth her while to spend some energy sipping nectar from our rosemary bush. A blue bottle fly joined her,shoving its head into the sky blue rosemary flower, seeking what it wanted at that moment.

We're not so good at knowing what we want. How do I know this? Just look around.

On Thursday, my students were subjected to propaganda, their amygdalas tugged by a series of images and videos tying together Columbine, Hitler, smiling toddlers, Anne Frank, and (for the love of Zeus) Chuck Norris himself.

We all sat in an auditorium with no windows, entertained by "Colleen," a young woman with lovely teeth and healthy skin, telling stories meant to instill fear. The presentation was well choreographed, and it had its intended effects.

Create the bogey man, then tell kids that kindness will kill it.

I fell into Bloomfield by accident almost 30 years ago, and stayed because I love it. We're a mixed town, in mixed's myriad senses. We're scrappy. We're a bit to the left on the intellectual (but not intelligence) curve. Most important, we're kind.

That's a huge statement.

When my wife got smashed by a car, meals showed up on our stoop for weeks, meals made by friends, and meals made by friends of friends.

We used to have factories--we made flags, we made metal tubing, we made candy, we made rubber products. We had saw mills, cotton mills,copper mills, paper mills, and woolen mills. We had Schering and General Electric and Westinghouse. We still have an abandoned field where the Manhattan Project first enriched uranium, our town tainted by our patriotism.

We don't make much anymore because other towns across the oceans make it for less. We're a little bit desperate these days.

But we're still kind.

Walks along the edge of the bay remind me what is true, what matters. We are all mortal, every one of us, and every day I remember this, and every day it surprises me.

Walks along the bay remind me that there's a lot more going on than language and electronic images can capture.

Earlier today I saw a Canada goose at the ocean's edge, an unusual place for this bird. As we approached, it waddled into the surf, getting smacked one wave after the next.

It will not likely make it to February. No guarantees any of us will. My student's do not need to hear the multiple shots of two very troubled young men in Columbine to know this.

A walk in the beach will suffice.
Bread made by Jessica Pierce.

So here's my late resolution for 2012.

I will speak truthfully, always, to my students.

They know that I am happy, they know I find love using a clam rake, but find my joy, and maybe any joy, confusing. They have been trained by parents, by teachers, by culture, not to know what they want.

They seek immortal life with no idea why.
They fear death with no idea why.
They chase what others tell them they want with no idea why.

My primary task as a science teacher is to show them that the natural world dwarfs our imagination, and that the more we seek, the less we know, and that with this comes a paradoxical comfort.

Few of my students have seen the stars as their grandparents did, few of them know where food comes from as their grandparents did, few of them grasp how tenuous all this is as their grandparents did.

Death is certain, fear of death is not.

Joy is possible (even) in a classroom. I know nothing, but I know joy.
By June I pray my students know a little bit more about what is possible and about what is not.


You are mortal. Why not act as though you believe it?


Jeffrey Michals-Brown said...

Well, "My primary task as a science teacher is to show them that the natural world dwarfs our imagination, and that the more we seek, the less we know, and that with this comes a paradoxical comfort" I suppose is nicely poetical, but I have to disagree that the more we seek the less we know.

Of course there are many unanswered questions. But we actually know a hell of a lot, and more all the time. I recently began a long-term substitute position teaching (among other things) AP biology. I thought I'd been keeping up fairly creditably since my degrees were minted in the early 80s, but not so: close study of a chapter on chromosome structure and evolution left my mind reeling. And I am having a BLAST catching up.

I tell my kids that my job is not to help them get a good job, or even succeed in college: my job is to help them see how the universe works. And that knowledge, to me, is joyous.

Mary Ann Reilly said...

Having a bit of difficulty imagining how "Columbine, Hitler, smiling toddlers, Anne Frank, and (for the love of Zeus) Chuck Norris himself" might be worked together into some type of narrative. Has a religious right feel to it.

Love your description of town life and appreciate how it is different from walks along the bay.

Every time I convince myself I know so much, I read/listen to Seamus Heaney's "St. Kevin and the Blackbird."

St Kevin and the Blackbird

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
and Lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing's imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in Love's deep river,
'To labour and not to seek reward,' he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river's name.


I believe we forget more than we know.

doyle said...

Dear Jeffrey,

While I'll admit that in the conceit of words I may have garbled the point, let me try again here, and see where that leads us. I can always edit the post.

"The less we know" is the problem--not because it's wrong, but because it is wide open to interpretation. It would wobble less if I said "the more we seek, the more we realize how complex the universe is, and the more we realize how incomplete our grasp is." [Not a great job here, either, but hey, we're in the comment section.]

A physicist in the Newtonian universe could reasonably believe that the "laws" of nature would ultimately reveal themselves. Thomson and Rutherford put a huge dent in that (not to mention the 20th century work by the greats), and today's physics models/maths, while tremendously useful, are as much abstract representations of the real world (whatever that means) as anything humans have created.

Mind you, I am not equating physics models with the, say, a Henry Moore sculpture--physics has more predictive value for natural phenomena--but both are human abstractions that have a lot to say about our world. Both make my world larger, but both also show that the world is, ultimately, beyond our comprehension.

I will play with it a bit--the Greeks had a lovely word for this power we get from thinking we know more than we do--hubris.

I teach AP as well, and it is fun seeing how the pieces fit together, but if a child in your classroom leaves knowing more about DNA polymerase III than fertile soil, or leaves your class believing an ever-expanding centrally controlled economic system can be sustained by our land base, or can recite the path of an electron down a thylakoids ECT without truly grasping that most of the mass of a tree comes from a gas, well, then we truly know less than we think we do.

doyle said...

Dear Mary Ann,

Seamus Heaney's North sits next to me this morning, my glasses perched on it, a coincidence, but not an accident.

Your last line succinctly sums up what took me a few hundred blog posts to get.

It's what we've forgotten that's killing us.

Patty V said...

Mike, I love your 'stuff'...poetry, prose, daily observations - (you're writing a book, you know.)
Yet, I come away with such a mixture of joy & sadness, especially for the kids. YET, our parents, our grandparents are congregating somewhere feeling just as sorry for us - what a world of difference.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps they can see the bigger picture, the puzzle pieces finally aligned. We're all runners, carrying the flag further each time - we were born 'knowing' this, we just have to remember.

There is a voice inside of you.
That whispers all day long,
”I feel this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.”
No teacher, preacher, parent,
friend, or wise man can decide
… what’s right for you...
just listen to the voice
that speaks inside.

Shel Silverstein

Susan Eckert said...

I think these intellectual (or is it intelligent...who likes an intellectual) dudes said it best:

"For myself, I like a universe that includes much that is unknown and, at the same time, much that is knowable. A universe in which everything is known would be static and dull, as boring as the heaven of some weak-minded theologians. A universe that is unknowable is no fit place for a thinking being. The ideal universe for us is one very much like the universe we inhabit. And I would guess that this is not really much of a coincidence." - Carl Sagan.

"Nothing is rich but the inexhaustible wealth of nature. She shows us only surfaces, but she is a million fathoms deep." — Ralph Waldo Emerson

doyle said...

Dear Palpitate,

Ah, thanks for the compliment, but unless someone else wants to grab all the pieces and bind them together, it's unlikely I'll ever write a book. I watched as Leslie wrote a novel. I saw a friend struggle through it as well. I think I'd rather go through the labor of delivering a human than creating a book. And I never want to know labor pain.

We (Europeans/colonialists/westerners/whatever) entered a unilateral and dangerous pact with the natural world early in the 20th century--call it "human exceptionalism".

That we are heading towards something better, more evolved, and finer than this mess of blood, flesh, and bones is a myth that destroys the stories of all the organisms that share Earth.

It's a dangerous myth that most of us believe without much thought--it's built into our curriculum, our culture, our lives.

Could my granparents congregate, I suspect they'd be more impressed with the ease of life today than the damage. Not sure the Lenape who walked the bay a thousand years ago would be as understanding.

doyle said...

Dear Susan,

Smart guys, those two. Emerson (by way of Leslie) shares bloodlines with my children.

I think my (and many others share this) distaste for intellectualism is the hubris it often engenders.

Intelligence helps you see the world; intellectualism thinks we helped create it.

(I know I'm not being fair, I just like getting you all riled up about this sort of nonsense.)

Susan Eckert said...

Uh, yeah, I know...see, I posted that dreaded word "intellectual" to get YOU all riled up. Two can play at this game. :)

doyle said...


Leslie said...

As far as Emerson, that is pure self-defense. You brought all that Irishness in the mix, at least I made sure that they're fourth cousins six times removed with Emerson (but who's counting).

And, oh neat! I just mistyped Emerson (as I am wont to do) and noticed that if you add an "i" in the wrong (right) place, you get "emersion".

doyle said...

You are more Irish than me in the ways that matter, but no matter.

That I got to frolic with a relative of Emerson gives me literary license to, um, say I frolicked with a descendant of Emerson.

So I'm literary by emersion.

Susan Eckert said...

You two make the perfect pair. :)