While taking a study break in a campus coffee lounge, I got into a conversation with that rare SU*NY Albany bird: an older student like myself. We kvetched about the arrogant young students and how standoffish they are to those not in their fast, baby-faced cliques. But then we copped to the fact that we were just as buttheaded, aggravating, and assured of the all-encompassing scope of our own fabulousness when we were their age. We chatted a bit more, and before going our separate ways, shared a conspiratorial laugh about the glorious edge we now have: life experience.
Twenty years ago, I fumbled my way through my first college stint, and heard many times, "you'll understand when you have more life experience". It used to piss me off, but I get it now. Not a class goes by that I don't find myself in wonder at the color and passion and depth a few decades on this planet lends to the formal learning process.
A few weeks ago we were learning about space travel basics, how the real problem with travelling to distant planets isn’t that they are too far away, it’s that we don't have a fuel that is both potent and light enough to take us there. Current space travel is a series of leapfroggy moves sliding from earth orbit to sun orbit to planet orbit. Using gravity assist manuevers, the spaceship slides close enough to a planet's orbit to use its gravity to slingshot off the other side, only using rocket burns along the way for a few minutes here and there as it moves towards its final destination. The travel path is never a straight line, but a series of circles, spirals, and loop-de-loops that can take a spaceship years to dance through.
And as the professor talked us through the steps, the front of the huge lecture hall filling with diagrams and pictures and computer simulated moving graphics, I sat in my seat, metaphors for life superimposed over the flickering lights and movements of spaceships and trajectories, the voiceover in my head saying: how pure, strong is your fuel? how clean does it burn? how much debris do you leave in your wake? there are no straight lines in a life, only spirals, only gravity-assists with other bodies hurtling through space, gravity-assists that speed a body up, slow a body down. who do you orbit? who orbits you? . . .
In my Later Works of Shakespeare class we visit King Lear: down and down and down we go into the puzzle pieces of a life, the weird language gently breaking up to show brilliant sweeps of emotional cause and effects, an arrogant, angry man, a man who gives away his land out of a sense of omnipotent entitlement. But his land turns out to be his life, and through a series of betrayals and stupid moves, he is dethroned, banished, pitched out into the world by his children. He mistreated people, and much of what occurs for him is payback, although as he begins to wake up, to be aware of his role in all that is happening to him, he is, at the very least, finally facing the truth about himself.
And I think of how we are all the rulers of the kingdom of our lives, how fast our minds spin as we try to figure out what to do to undo what we've done. For those of us pigheaded or fortunately unfortunate enough to have the courage and compassion to face the depth and scope of our delusions, we wake up to truths about how we have impacted the world, the people around us, and it is often not pretty.
It is true that I am a stranger in a strange land of higher learning, a granolahead let loose in the Land of The Mind, but I find every day, every class, bringing new openings with how connected everything is, a fresh perspective in how we all do and don’t fit in to the great flow of culture, society. I find a greater capacity to embrace, if not the machine of the world, then at least the people who live inside of it, something that was difficult to do when I had a mostly outsider’s view.
I live way beyond the borders of my comfort zone almost all of the time – the bed that I sleep in, the garage that I have to navigate in and out of, the position of the shower head, navigating the narrow stairs up to my apartment with a single bag, turning my energy down in the lecture hall so that I am not so distracting to the professor, speaking to people in a way that shields what I have been doing for a living, allowing my brain to take in and process enormous quantities of data while keeping as much of it as possible out of my heart, a life that is doingdoingdoing from when I get up in the morning until I go to bed.
I’ve learned to surrender to this Otherness, to accept the facts of what is genuinely occurring, so that I can do what needs to be done. I’m learning to let go of the desire for my preferences. Instead of moving towards comfort, I open to spaciousness, to that sliver of freedom that doesn’t fight what feels uncomfortable or even painful, but gives itself over to acceptance of What Is Occurring.
For years I was lost inside of the perpetual New Age vision of sweetness, light, and pursuit of enlightenment as comprised of soulmates, cash, and bliss. Next came the nihilism years, the realization that nothing matters, that for those who enter, all hope must be abandoned. Then, came a small resurgence of peace, love, and granola, followed by another bout of darkness. The length of pendulum swings get smaller. The drama lessens. The belief in any one thing continues to dissolve. And somewhere in the middle of all of it, I will eventually emerge with certifications, degrees, stronger world navigation tools, having experienced this enormous scope of world experiences, and finally choosing . . what?
I have no freaking idea . . .