Losing the story

I have not been doing “place-conscious” teaching to a great extent the past few years. The failure is not with the kids but with the adults, who do not see building a community and living through it as a task central to education. So, there is little in the way of conversation at the community level for kids to join.

The heart of the problem is that people have escaped community and do not want to re-create it, and certainly not in the unpromising context of a due-process bureaucracy that treats everyone–staff and clients–without care. Place-based teaching could make more sense in a private school organized around a shared purpose and a shared understanding of what practices best serve that purpose. But public schools serve mainly careerist and consumerist passions.

I’ve tried to get more clear about a kind of knowing has been handed down to me through an American culture where it was understood that the material world related to the spiritual world in such a way that any moment correctly observed could express an eternal truth–provide a visible type by which the invisible world could be apprehended.

When, as Puritans, early Americans encountered the New England coast, they did not see stones shaped by geologic forces over millions of years or waves rising and falling according to laws of physics that stretched backward and forward through infinity without change. What they did see was a stage upon which a cosmic drama of sin and redemption was enacted in every moment. They saw in all of it a provident God whose story gave time a beginning and an end, extending moment by moment in unimaginably vast patterns that both repeated and unfolded more fully.

In learning to see their own lives as stories, types within the unfolding plan, they became skilled metaphorical thinkers, adept at seeing in quite different details the same patterns, which were revelatory of the underlying truth from which existence unfolded. Their own grand errand to the wilderness could be understood through the Israelites’ journey through wilderness toward the promised land.

Every event and aspect of nature was at once itself and a remembrancer of more. History was not merely chronology but also an intelligible order in which prophets had discerned and described both past and future. History was not one damn thing after another but a way of seeing things as they really are and really will be. The smallest of stories resonated without end.

Later, such ones as Thoreau, Emerson, Melville and Hawthorne separated the Puritan’s metaphorical facility from faith in the God of the Bible, making symbols that suggested transcendence. It was still known among people in general that every time and place was somehow an instance of the universal. One could still see eternity in a grain of sand.

For a while it seemed that little had changed. But for some, a separation of metaphor and faith was not enough. It was necessary that there be no gods. It remains something of a mystery to me why, seeing a cosmos ordered by goodness, some souls turn away, preferring a cosmos that they themselves construct–the fall from an uncertain truth to a certain untruth, as Voegelin said.

But they did construct a cosmos full of emptiness and death. In “The Snow Man” Wallace Stevens said that to face the meaningless arrangements and rearrangements of patterns that make up modernity, “one must have a mind of winter.” Only then can one behold “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

It’s true that few of us really do have minds of winter. The covers of best sellers are graced with images of Egyptian pyramids or South American temples or Stonehenge. People keep looking beyond cold nothing.

Still, an awareness of nothing has creeped into our schools and offices. What does it matter which building in which edge city reached by which highway one goes to through morning gridlock to ride the same elevator to the same hallway to the same room filled with purplish gray fabric-covered cubicles, personalized with photocopied jokes?

In such places, the contemporary concern with “sense of place” emerged.

I think that the longing for a sense of place has grown from a longing for meaning, which is in part a longing for a way of being understood and loved, as a way of being together. Many of us no longer have a sense of living among all our grandmothers and grandfathers and all our children and grandchildren, some not yet born–and yet we are not ready to completely inhabit the cold empty sense that all we have been amounts to only the melting and shattering of vibrating bits.

The longing for a sense of place is, I think, a longing for the cosmos at the scale of home. It’s a longing for meaning and connections that prove that we are alive and that we matter. It’s a powerful longing. It leads people to crave drugs, to join gangs, to get pregnant, to prepare speeches and workshops. . .

Outside my office window, I hear thunder but it’s too dark still to see weather. I know fires are burning in the Mission Mountains, and my sons will be heading there at dawn. When it gets light, I will drive north for the first day of a new school year. I know that the empty spaces between protons and electrons that comprise my desk are a million billion times larger than the particles themselves, and I know that the solidity of the birch window sill where I lean, searching the breeze for scent of smoke, is an illusion created by force fields within which electrons and protons dance, and I know that nobody knows what the forces fields are, and that the electrons themselves are made of even smaller particles, emerging from waves of a not-nothing that are prior to energy and flooding the universe with being.

But I do not know what stories to tell at work.

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