Wednesday, December 30, 2015

We are hol(e)y

Thoughts while waiting for the light to return.....

While science rests on models, abstract shadows of patterns drawn out of noise, the models ultimately depend on nature.

Nature is the concrete stuff around us, in us, of us. Our children do not know this because we do not know it ourselves, so we do not teach this.

If we knew (and made a deliberate effort to remain conscious of what we know) our relationship with the natural world, we would change in ways that would make us happier. But that's never been the point of public education, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.


Our deepest selves, in the literal sense, take in molecules from this concrete world with each breath--our skin is a holey border revered by our sense of self, an ego that believes we are something separate from this stuff around us--but every living cell needs to interact with the world beyond ourselves or else it will die.

When we bleed, we mourn the tear in our border, but not the thousands of white blood cells, of us, writhing in a drop of blood that falls from a pricked finger into the rich earth of the garden. A few bacteria may be caught in the unseen drama before our cells ultimately lose the fight, themselves consumed by life unseen in the dirt.

While the story is abstract, the reality is not.

We are holey, we are not one.


Living (for most critters on this planet), means doing the things you need to do to get the stuff and energy required to keep your pieces together in some sort of organized way that lets you stay alive. While your physical being (a cell, a body, a colony, whatever) eventually crumbles, this living process called life continues through generations, life that is as much a part of you eons ago as it may be eons from now. We all share this with all other living things, reason enough to rejoice.

As we crumble and rebuild, crumble and rebuild, it becomes obvious that you and me are put together from stuff outside of our holy selves. Plants knit together the carbon, and we take it from there. What is not as obvious is that we are crumbling and rebuilding moment by moment, so that the stuff of you today is hardly the stuff of you just a few years ago, stuff that was once part of the nonliving, stuff of the dead, stuff of the still living.

We are holy, we are one.

The stuff we have here on Earth doesn't change much day to day--we get a few hundred tons of space dust every day, and we're losing hundreds of tons of hydrogen gas at the same time, but neither has much to do with day to day living here on Earth.

We are literally recycled stuff, bits and pieces put together in orderly fashion through the living before us, using the grace of free energy released by the sun.

We live (and die) by cycles, the cycles of stuff, and the cycles of seasons (which ultimately depend on the waxing and waning of available sunlight.

The great religions, at their best, have shared these truths with us for thousands of years. Science is starting to get there now, after a dark period of reductionist thought that still dominates our thinking in the western world.

So take a breath--feel the oxygen enter your lungs, imagine it coursing through your arteries to your cells, know that it will be transformed to water as it rejoins protons and electrons stripped from water by a plant not so long ago.

Eat an orange--feel the food surge down your esophagus, to be broken down into tinier and tinier bits, ultimately reduced to the carbon dioxide you breathe out, and to the protons and electrons that will join the oxygen you just took in.

Reason enough to say grace to the stuff, to the light, to us, to everything we call "stuff."

Photos by Leslie (sludge pile, sunset) and me (hops, shell)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Clam and kale soup

Not a post--I put my recipes where I can find them later

Low tide at 4:55. Sunset at 4:44.

The dreary December dusk descended with a breeze stiff enough to make my rake handle vibrate when held across the wind. The water-warmed wind wrapped around me like a September squall.

Foam broke off the back bay waves and skipped onto the mudflat, fleeting beach demons dissolving in the darkening gloom.

I got my dozen, then put three back. I had what I needed.

Back home kale waited for me.
  • Two handfuls of fresh dug clams
  • Three fistfuls of fresh cut kale
  • A few sprigs of rosemary cut off the bush
  • A small onion
  • Just enough olive oil
  • Big dab of butter
  • A glass (or two) of white wine
  • A cup of half and half cream

Prep the clams: 
  • Scrub the clams.
  • Bring clam pot water (about 3/4" deep) to boiling
  • Put clams in until opened.
  • Scoop out the clams, chop up the meat, save the juice, and hold in bowl until all clams cooked.
  • Once all clams cooked, dump chopped clams and juice back into the clam water and let simmer.
Everything else:
  • Pour just enough olive oil into iron skillet to coat bottom.
  • Toss in a few sprigs of fresh rosemary and cook until leaves flatten in oil, then remove the sprigs
  • Toss in chopped onion, and let simmer until onions start to sweeten just so
  • Pour in wine, and let simmer for 5 minutes
  • Rip up kale and toss into above in several handfuls--each handful should shrink into manageable size before tossing in the next.
  • Toss in dab of butter, simmer until melted
Put it together:
  • Pour the kale broth into the clam broth
  • Simmer a few minutes, long enough so that the kale and clams get acquainted
  • Toss in cup of half and half, turn off flame, and let set for 5 minutes.

Serve with bread and Guinness.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

St. Stephen's Day, a day late....

A reminder from last year's adventures
It is one thing to write of mortality, quite another to kiss its cheek.
I am in the land of the fine again, but we all are dancing in the same shadow.

Flatiron Building, 1902, Library of Congress

A St. Stephen's Day Story

My great grandfather was a bricklayer at a time when New York City, just a sail away, was laying a lot of bricks. He'd come to the States, ply his trade, then return to the island.

In New York City there are many magnificent buildings erected on the backs of those who traveled from home, because they had to, and I am sure many families in the area claim a particular building (or two) as their own.

To whom does a garden belong? The gardener who digs into the rich bed of life, or the rich man who pays for his gardener's services? And so it is with the Flatiron Building in New York City. It is as much ours as anyone with a legal claim to the deed.

I can only imagine the thoughts running through a man far younger than myself as he tumbled several stories to the street below in a city far from his home. I can only imagine the pain and fear as he was carted off to a hospital, at a time when no one expected a man to survive a fall like that.

I do not have to imagine, though, that he prayed.
I have little doubt that in his prayers, after, of course Jesus and Mary, he prayed to St. Stephen.
Stoning of St. Stephen, Paolo Uccello, 1435

St. Stephen was stoned to death for a few reasons, but clearly he agitated those in power with his belief that  "the most High dwells not in temples made with hands." He is the patron saint of bricklayers, which would be ironic in most cultures.

So today is a good reminder to me to remember a few things that matter:
  • We are here by the tenuous thread we call the Grace of God.
  • Though our individual threads will break, we are all part of a larger, living tapestry.
  • Spills, even bad ones, can end well.
  • We revere the temples of learning at our peril.

I am the same man;
I will not be the same teacher.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Pill bug Christmas prayer

My Christmas prayer last year....

Less than a mile away, in the gray shadows of a closed classroom, a pill bug wanders around some compost, feeling relief as it moistens it gills. It stumbles onto a fellow pill bug, exchanges greetings with a brief twitching of touching antennae, then ambles over to a piece of potato.

Wild pill bug, loitering on a North Cape May driveway.

It sees light we know exists, but no human will see today.
It knows sound we know exists; an old analog clock ticks a few feet away.
It knows of existence, and the existence of others like it.

Christmas means nothing, of course, to a critter no bigger than a wheat berry.
But living does.

The light is returning.

There is joy and wisdom in silence and darkness.
Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

On joyful noise and the human condition

Found on our classroom typewriter

One of the joys of clamming in December is listening to Brant geese chatter back and forth a few yards down the flat from me. Mostly at each other. Sometimes at me. Occasionally at nothing more than the water and the sky.

Wordless, but not senseless.

One of the joys of spending a good chunk of my awake hours in a room full of adolescent mammals is listening to them talk.

Not the words--I'm too deaf to spend the energy discerning whatever abstract nonsense is being piped about. We've been sharing the same abstract nonsense ever since Adam blamed Eve for his own foolishness.

No, I mean the warm wall of sound, the rhythms of vowels carved by consonants, the dance of the back and forth cadence of voices, the wavering pauses.

"Dance of Death," Michael Wolgemut

Add the fleeting facial expressions, the aromas and pheromones, and a cacophony of noise to the elders becomes a symphony of meaning for the young.

We are all mammals, even teachers. Our most intense moments of the shared sounds of communion dissolve into wordless exchanges. Shared meals, shared music, shared bodies, shared death, we remember for a moment we are all one in this world.

This is what we lose by texting

Sunday, December 20, 2015

On Transubstantiation in the classroom

From years past. the real Christmas miracle....

"Flowers, leaves, fruit, are the 
air-woven children of light."
Jacob Moleschott, 19th c. physiologist

The sun stands still for an instant just a few days from now, and will start its trip back north. We are all children of the light.

I ate a basil leaf in class today, grown from a flower fertilized by bee that stole a sip of nectar back in August. A child in class separated the seed from the dried flower head in October, and planted it.

The past two months the basil germinated, grew a pair of leaves, then another, then yet another, weaving together the carbon dioxide molecules floating around the room, pieces of this child's breakfast or that child's heart.

Transubstantiation, the miraculous changing of the Host into the flesh of God, has all the fancy accouterments one would expect for these kinds of things, but after all the noise, the Host still tastes like, well, a wafer.

Through several Sundays of Masses, the tiny basil seed grew, taking in the carbon dioxide of the breath of my lambs in class, an odorless gas, and weaved it with broken water molecules, creating the stuff of life, a basil plant, and today we took Communion.

No one believes this, of course, because it is simply too much to believe--but it's true and requires not a lick of faith.

The plants in our room are, literally, from the breath of those who live here--and at least a few of the carbon dioxide molecules captured were released when someone's brain in class tried to grasp the concept of photosynthesis.

And it was good.

And you're allowed to gnaw on basil....

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Photosynthesis in December

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.

--John Keats 

The shadows are as long as they will get in these parts, and will stay with us for a few more days. Our shadows trail us like stretched cartoon monsters chasing us over browned grass and fallen leaves.

Too little sun left now to put back together the stuff we break, complex molecules put together by plants in brighter times. Every moment we live we create chaos out of order, our bodies hanging on by the grace of entropy, freeing the energy of sunlight trapped by the plants now waiting for the return of spring.

Our lives depend on this instability--large, unstable molecules masquerading as a grilled cheese sandwich, a pint of ale, a bowl of cereal literally shredded apart in our cells and tossed out of our bodies with every breath.

Puff on your palm--the moisture and the exhaled gases were part of the bread you ate less than a day ago, the heat the energy of transformed sunlight captured in July by a wheat berry in Kansas. This is the material, real world, the stuff in us, of us. This is not metaphorical.

There is no global economy--it is the sounds of words and numbers and data, all too abstract to sustain even the tiniest critters among us. Yet that is what we tell ourselves matters.

The real economy is found in the breath we exhale, the knitting of these cold and stale molecules back into the rich stuff we call food, only to be broken again. And again. And again. Until we cannot do it anymore.

A year ago the "I" part of me came close to falling out of this lovely and utterly terrifying cycle of life, though I'd still have been a part of it, my cremated corpse contributing to the building blocks of the living.

I'm still here. So are you. Let's keep it real.

We work at what we worship, and the gods of the old were far less abstract than the ones we worship today.
Photos by Leslie Doyle. If you want to use them, ask.