A Ramble on a Pair of Ducks
A Ramble on a Pair of Ducks
“Step on a crack, break your mother’s back”, we used to shout as we sprang over cracks in the sidewalk en route to school. We carried furry and highly- coloured rabbit’s feet for luck or special talisman into exams, seriously pretending we possessed lucky tokens to change or improve our luck.
Even now, as grownups, we have those rituals that will protect us from evil or make our passages safer from downfall: a certain shirt; a necklace: a tiny action figure
saved from childhood. My sister carries my mother’s hairbrush in her purse. Yet, most of us know these are empty traditions that no longer satisfy our childish belief that we can affect and change our fates. Yet, we continue to want to believe fiercely that we can control our lives and that good boys and girls will be successful and Santa will in deed reward us with treats.
I should have known better when I hung a sock and received a lump of coal at Christmas time one year, obviously influenced by the saccharin stories on television and the goopy songs that promised twinkling toys. Perhaps it was my parents’ strange and ironic humour to teach: that a Jewish girl should not expect gifts from a mythic deity, even if he had human whiskers and merry chatty elves in pointy hats.
So it seems that my worldview has tottered between a lusty excitement of something magical and wonderful to downright despair that life kicks you in the butt even when your expectations are pure and you do really try. And even when you are bubbling with joy, a speck of dirt invades your contact lens and makes you cry tears of pain, and causes you to conclude that inevitably things will not turn out as you had passionately hoped.
The Existentialists supported a “sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world” ( See Robert C. Solomon, Existentialism (McGraw-Hill, 1974, pp. 1–2) and in the 70’s the popular view held that not to choose was also to choose: being stoic did not mean you had not acted. We were overfed Albert Camus’ dark tale of The Stranger in French and English, his aloofness of non-feeling, that his knowledge that he did not belong and his resultant coldness even in the face of his mother’s death culminated perhaps into a post-modern attitude of isolationism. In the face of absurdity and fear of falling, do we not clutch towards superstitions and ways to hold on?
At my first job teaching in the Jane Finch corridor, I recall a gathering in the cramped space of the English office and someone announcing, “It’s a pair of ducks”.
“What”, I queried, even before the need of hearing aids. “ A para-ah- dux, a paradox, a PARADOX”.
Uh-huh, my twenty-one year old mind surmised, sure.
But throughout my life, I have come to realize, that yes, in deed, everything is in deed, a paradox. In other words, there are two, or more likely, many sides to every story or event. Most, not even matching.
As a follower of Post-modernism, I can concur, that celebrating only your own tribe, group, personal religion or preferences may be a great thing for remaining insular and uninvolved in matters beyond your own particular realm; however, at the same time, the present mantra that is preached lauds collaboration, group work, diversity, getting together, empathy of others’ views. How can those two diametrically opposing views co-exist? Impossible? Even absurd?
Similarly in education, child-centred learning, Gardner’s multiple intelligences ( in spite of Sacherin Star’s mislabeling- See earlier blog), seem to sit rather uncomfortably with multiple choice testing that requires kiddies to select one right answer on the standardized tests administered like clockwork at precisely prescribed times of the year.
For me, just providing choice opens an exquisite realm of possibilities that twists and turns on its head that there is ONLY one way of answering a question. Some illogical conclusions might herald validity- at least in my world. I suppose that is the world where dogs can fly and people live happily ever after. I believe there is never only one answer. Even my eldest daughter’s best friend a PH.D in astrophysics who measured the distance between stars speculated on multiple propositions. I’m wondering if her decision to leave science and follow Swing Dancing was caused by the insistence of someone to provide a finite number of miles.
However, I don’t buy that school success and childhood brilliance reside in the camp of multiple choices where only one correct response sounds the bell of genius. I honestly believe in the expression of knowledge in a variety of ways, not pigeonholed by statistics that do disservice to what lifelong learning is and should be.
I think of my early learning at West Prep and a grade one teacher ironically named Miss Young in her brown oxfords, metal-rimmed glasses who raked my curly head with her nails, showering such disapproval on me, that even the act of cutting out green leaves in a specific shape and size seized me with terror. To this day, I remember the name “Michael Cooper” who surreptiously came to my rescue. Years later when I strode into an American Express in Denmark and spied him, I raced over to thank him. He looked at me as if I were crazy but even as I write this 6o years later, I viscerally relive the terror of performing that incorrect act : of being wrong. Perhaps if I had kept a rabbit’s foot nearby, stroked it, murmured an occult saying, I would have calmed myself and been able to conquer the simple task required of the class of five year olds.
In contrast to that terror, I also recall a month that my younger daughter spent at Camp Interlochen in Michigan with a real science teacher and her joy. He must have been much like David Suzuki, albeit with whiskers and in khaki shorts for their science was one of discovery: building bird cages, gently separating thrush to come upon duck eggs, scooping handfuls of earth to dislodge worms and ants. Not a matter of rights and wrongs, yes or no, or not just one correct interpretation. A science of exploration and discovery and visible truths, opening up holes in the darkness of the pond.
At my child’s grandson’s daycare several weeks ago, I overhear the ECE respond to the child’s answer by asking “ What is your hypothesis?” and I wanted to say to Rob, “ Yes, yes, YES”. Continue to encourage him to observe, think for himself, come to his conclusions through asking, reflecting, measuring, commanding diverse tools…” I hope he could see my delight in his approach.
So having- as I often do- diverted from my discussion here in my blog, I now return to the plaguing topic of superstitions. And yet, a desire to believe beyond ourselves in something greater or magical sometimes does manage to get us through life’s trials. As we are only tiny specks in the massive cosmos, how can we say we know everything about everything. Which brings me to my hidden query:
With my mother passing away several months ago, the rabbi who attended her burial recommended a book entitled Does the Spirit Survive by Rabbi Eli Spitz. Spitz examines biblical sources, neardeath experiences (NDE), hypnoses, and his own incredible audience with a medium. Interestingly, Spitz relates that there are Jewish groups who did and do believe in reincarnation and he provides authorities who list the stages through which one passes, also demurring that many of the great religions accept reincarnation of the soul. What I appreciate about Spitz is his attitude towards his topic- which is skeptical- but ends in acknowledging that if such beliefs encourage “good deaths” or enable people to overcome fears or neuroses, he is supportive. I feel similarly.
Speak to your friends and inevitably someone you know will recount an event that fulfills such thinking. One friend recently recounted that as she and her neighbor sat talking about the neighbour’s deceased husband, a sudden gust of wind shook the nearby trees and they were blanketed in cloaks of flowers. Perhaps you sneer and mouth the words, “ Coincidence”. For the widow, there were important associations.
My daughter who has researched NDEs had a conversation with a medium who said that my father had contacted her. About 50% of the information was incredibly correct. The medium identified my father had a lower body ailment. She said, “It feels like the lower part of his back and legs were affected. Trouble walking. Dragging feet”. My father had contracted polio at age 28. The medium also stated, “ He is showing me his sternum area, something not right with… the upper part. Liver? “Almost 20 years ago, my father had fallen and torn his spleen, and was wrongly diagnosed, dying of lymphoma.
She said, ”The letter M was surrounding him…” His beloved mother was named Molly, his disliked sister Marion…
Music, I hear Music… Classical music”, she continued.
My father’s work was in perfecting sound and he analyzed classical music.
However, there were many incorrect insights as well, the medium suggesting that “he held a positive attitude, reassuring others about life and its obstacles and hardship.” Not so and from the time he contracted polio ( perhaps earlier, I don’t know), he was bleak, introverted, sarcastic, hard, no fan to gardens or flowers as he suffered from hayfever and asthma.
Still, the reading gives me some pause.
This weekend at Bryn Athyn College Dr. Eben Alexander, academic neurosurgeon for more than 25 years with work that includes Brigham; Women’s and Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston will talk on his own NDE (Near Death Experiences) experiences and his awareness of an Afterlife. His book Proof of Heaven is riveting.
I hope my cynicism is proven wrong and there are things we cannot fathom or understand with our limited human minds: that angels do wrap their gossamer wings around us and every once in a while touch us, heal us and turn lumps of coal into glittering stars. Still the child scowling in disappointment but holding onto the possibilities that make life shine brighter.