Wednesday, October 31, 2012

That Sounds Just Like My Grandfather: Reflections on His Death

I got to know my grandfather best when I started college. I knew him before, but as a distant figure. He and his wife moved to Florida when I was young. I have two brief memories of them before they left Maine. In one, I remember being at their house and my great-grandmother was there, sitting in a chair in a corner. She wanted a kiss, but I didn't know her and felt scared.

The second was later, I believe. I think they hadn't moved from Maine yet, but maybe they were just visiting for the summer. We were walking to their apartment one summer day. I was in between them, holding their hands, and we were swinging their arms. When we are at their place, I remember thinking their refrigerator was weird, because it was a side-by-side refrigerator and freezer and I had only ever seen a top-freezer unit.

After that, I remember them coming to visit one summer and I didn't recognize them. Although young, I felt bad for not recognizing them and even worse for not feeling comfortable with them.

As I grew older, I began to remember and I would even expect them in the summers. I appreciated the birthday cards and the money inside. I would write thank you letters and make birthday cards for them.

Then when selecting a college, I looked into Palm Beach Atlantic University, which was about 20-30 minutes from my grandparents home in Jupiter, Florida. I became very well acquainted with my grandparents. I practically lived there for my first semester. Their guest room became "my" bedroom. It was still the guest room, of course, but it was often referred to as "Trevah's room." They lived in Florida for over 20 years, but the Maine accent never went away. It'll fo'evah be paht of his chahm in my mind like it is still paht of Joan's.

Like a college student becoming his own individual, I started making friends my own age. Consequently, I was visiting my grandparents less. I had joined the choir at their church, so I would see them every Sunday. I was struggling with faith at the time and I was uncomfortable with some things in that church. I left the church, so I stopped seeing my grandparents every weekend.

I never stopped thinking about them. I never stopped visiting, but the visits became infrequent. They understood that I was developing, I was becoming my own man. I missed them, but I didn't know how to balance multiple relationships that don't travel in the same circle. I still don't.

I don't keep in touch with my parents or brother enough. I don't keep in touch consistently with many friends who don't live close to me. And if I make new friends who don't travel in the same circles, I don't do well giving my time and attention to both groups.

That imbalance has influenced most of my grief since my grandfather died Monday night. Really, it started Sunday night when I heard he collapsed while preaching.

When I started graduate school, things only became worse. When I made friends in Florida, I brought them to visit my grandparents. They met girlfriends, roommates, and other friends. When my friend and roommate Matt and I graduated, they hosted a cookout in our honor and invited his family. "He made me feel like part of the family," Matt recently wrote me.

And when I moved away for graduate school, that imbalance became worse. I sullied what was a great relationship by barely ever contacting them. They, like my parents, wouldn't initiate contact, because they thought they would bother me. Sure, I'm busy. Sure, I'm terrible at returning calls. But I never think someone's call is burdensome. They would never have been a bother. I loved them. I still do. Both of them.

This past year, I was proud to send my grandfather a card for his 84th birthday on September 20th. Not only did I send the card, but I also sent it before his birthday. Usually I'm late, if I send a card at all. I even included a letter this year. He wrote me back "[w]ithout delay," which he said, "expresses my appreciation."

I'm fortunate to have not recycled the letter just yet. The letter is a good memory.

I had plans to call him or write him another letter, telling him about my recent cruise. When I hadn't done it right away, my parents reminded me that I should call. I put it off. Last weekend I was going to write a letter, but I ended up hiking, going to a haunted house, and grading assignments.

I never imagined I would run out of time.

Sunday night I lay in bed trying to sleep, but only regretting. I lay on my back and the tears slipped from my eyes and began to fill my ears. Why didn't I just call? Why didn't I write and send the letter in a timely fashion? Why didn't I assure that he and Joan know I not only love them, but think of them often? Did he feel again like that distant figure he was when I was a child and didn't recognize him?

Funny how we experience mourning. My grandfather died, left behind a large family, including his wife, and I am worried about how he felt about how I felt. 

I am sad that he is gone, but he went in a "good" way. He never wanted to have a prolonged death. He didn't want to be resuscitated. In fact, back in 2004 or 2005, I was the witness who signed a statement saying he didn't want to be kept alive if his quality of life was or would become significantly worse.

He collapsed while preaching Sunday night. He opened his eyes long enough to say that he was doing fine. That sounds just like my grandfather, using his last words to calm people by saying things are OK. He was revived, but not soon enough to prevent brain damage. He passed away in just over 24 hours, dying around 10pm Monday night. His death wasn't a prolonged process. He died while preaching, something I know made him nervous after such a long sabbatical from the pulpit. But he also enjoyed doing it, being involved again. There are certainly worse ways to die.

And what now?

I would like to say that I have learned about the shortness of life and how I will never again waste time in communicating with loved ones. But let's be realistic. For the next few days, weeks, maybe, I'll try to be honest with people about my feelings. Perhaps I'll even make a few more calls, send a few more letters. But it won't last. As my mourning progresses, I'll forget again about how we are not guaranteed more time together. I'll probably remember, occasionally, this lesson, but it cannot stick.

People die all the time. I am aware of my mortality and the mortality of those around me. We are aware, all of us. It doesn't change enough, not for any of us.
How bad, how good, does it need to get?
How many losses? How much regret?
What chain reaction would cause an effect?
Makes you turn around,
Makes you try to explain,
Makes you forgive and forget,
Makes you change?
I don't know the answer to Tracy Chapman's questions. I suppose the answer is different for all of us. Sometimes I wonder if the answer is only temporary for all of us, just as temporary as life. And even if we change--when we change--there is always more to change in life. There is always more to do to make life better for all. Balancing relationships is just one thing I want to do better. Next, how do I balance passions? How do I balance taking care of myself and taking care of others? How do I balance those cares with relationships and my professional life, my professional lives?

Excuse me for getting a little preachy, but I want my grandfather's death to mean more than just the loss of one great man. I will be asking myself questions about change and balance for weeks and months. But I must ask you, what will it take to make you change? Is your balance what you want? Is it what you would have wanted 10 years ago? Is it what you will be pleased with in 10 years? What other changes can you make?

We can always be better. Always. In his letter to me, my grandfather said  he was "reaching for the stars." The tattoo on my left arm has a tree growing for the stars. I tell people the tree is reaching skyward. Every time a tree grows, it gets closer to the sky--it reaches its destination every time it grows. Yet, it always have farther to grow, because the sky is always higher to a tree.

We are like that tree, like my grandfather "reaching for the stars." Every change we make is what we want, but it always requires more change. Tracy Chapman's question will never be fully answered, even when it is addressed. Like my grandfather said in his letter, "That's probably a little over stated but it sounds good when you can't really observe the facts."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Three Looks at Re-Thinking a Popular Leadership Quote by Emerson

"Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

It was a dank and chilly Thursday morning. Five of my 25 students arrived to class on time. (I am planning a class day themed around punctuality.) I didn't spend much time planning for that day anyways.

Instead of talking about the differences between "affect" and "effect," I wrote the Emerson quote on the board and gave everyone an opportunity to respond in their Day Book. A few more students trickled in while we wrote.

I had no agenda at first. I planned to have them share what they wrote with others, honing their revision and editing skills. But as I thought about the quote more, I decided to try an exercise in critical thinking and analysis. If it flopped, at least I only had a few students criticizing me that day.


After hearing some initial thoughts, I asked my class what they think of when they imagine a path. We conjured up images of walking or hiking in the woods. When hiking, you are not supposed to stray from the trail for three reasons: (1) you might get lost, (2) you might get hurt, and (3) you are potentially harming the unadulterated nature you want to see while hiking. An ecological view of Emerson's quote changes the warm and fuzzy feelings it may initially conjure.

Paths are paths for a reason. They are proven to be safe. They get the traveler to the desired destination. They prevent aimless, time-consuming wandering. In the 19th century when Emerson lived, a path might help lead you to town or to a doctor when you didn't have time to get lost or run into a marsh. If you have a destination in mind, you should follow a path. If you want to be a doctor, you best go to medical school instead of making your own path. The only trail you leave will be one of lawsuits and sick people.

Beyond getting where you want to go, environmentalists preach low-impact hiking. The Matador Network suggests you follow the path or paths before you: "Especially when mud puddles or photographs are involved, it's sometimes tempting to wander off the trail. The long term effect is to create new paths that carve up formerly pristine areas. Not only does this look ugly, but it can hurt fragile plants and, over time, denude landscapes. Better to get your shoes a little dirty or sacrifice the perfect photo" ("5 Essential Rules for Low-Impact Hiking").

As the Matador Network notes, one of the points of hiking is the hike itself. So it is with life, too. We take paths to our goals and dreams not only to reach the destination, but so we can grow from the experience on the journey. Straying from the path not only ruins the experience for you, but for those behind you. The many shortcuts towards weight loss have resulted in tons of diets that neither last nor leave people healthy, but people still see the new trail and follow it. The beauty of discipline, changing one's diet, and exercising for health are hard to see through the vanity of weight loss and body images. Straying from the path denudes the landscape and the devalues the journey.

Approaching with New Historicism

Of course, sometimes straying from the path is good. If we only followed in the footsteps of others, we would never see progress. Indeed, we need to stray from the paths of the past in order to establish equality in the land.

Emerson is one of the founders and leaders of transcendentalism, a particularly US American philosophy that believed in the self-reliant individual. This emphasis on the individual helped us see injustice, because humans began not only to value themselves, but also other individuals in and for themselves. The value of the minority grew when each individual is as important as the whole. Emerson and others blazed this paradigm shift in Western thought from top down to bottom up.

Of course, Emerson's path may not have been the only one or the best one. We cannot know, because we live in a world where Emerson took the path he did. By telling people to make their own trails, he is asking them to do what he did, to do like he did. Paradoxically, he is telling them to go where there is no path, which is following the path he created. Essentially, he suggests to follow him by following no one.

Post-structuralist Critical Theory

Like good postmoderns and like people who simply want to hold onto something they enjoy, my students pressed my qualms with Emerson.

One student told me she found the quote inspiring. It encouraged her to be herself and not follow the trends society expected of her. A few students spoke about how they wanted to leave a path for a younger sibling to follow. One was even leaving a trail for an older sibling who returned to college when she enrolled.

At this point, my students confounded my agenda to unpack Emerson's metaphor in a way that makes one a little more uneasy about his advice. I wasn't ready to give up, though, because I reflected on my students. They are at a community college in Alabama, all of them required to take 093 Basic English--a class earning them no credits, but one they must pass in order to enter the core curriculum in English--and the majority of them are people of color. Although I cannot know them by these classifiers alone, they have different advantages and disadvantages than I do and than I had at their age.

I grew up in the northeast, and only qualified for one Federal Pell Grant during my time as an undergraduate student. My parents could even afford to send me to study abroad in Europe for a semester. Instead of taking a prereq class, I was in my college's honors program and I earned merit-based scholarships. Furthermore, I am white. I am white when people see me, I am white when people hear me, and I am white when people read what I write. People will always assume I am white, even when they don't see my skin.

I asked my class, "How much do you think privilege and your personal experiences impact how you read this quote?"

Their faces reflected their attempts to understand my question, so I began to explain privilege. I was thinking about the difference in the paths before Emerson, the paths before me, and the paths before my students. When any of my students, regardless of race, talk about leaving a trail for their siblings, I was wondering what the other options were for their siblings. Drugs? Homelessness? Foreclosure? Increased poverty in a world of increased cost of living? Dead end jobs? Gang association? Disease? Family life with a low, mediocre, or high paying job?

Following and Leading

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1:9

The writer of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) might retract that statement after seeing a cellphone, but Qoheleth is right to assert that we are always following paths set before us, in a sense. Emerson had to follow many philosophical, religious, and economic traditions--paths--in order to come to his ideas of transcendentalism. President Obama might tell Emerson, "You didn't build that," and he would be right. Still, Emerson did found new ground and set a new trail much in the same way technology advances and groundbreaking legislation do.

Like technology and legislation, the trails we leave are not always for the best. Have US Americans emphasized individuality too much? Although the emphasis on the individual helped us recognize the Other, it sometimes helps us ignore the Other so that we can achieve pleasure, like when our clothes and technological devices are made through slave labor. 

One might say we shouldn't follow a path until we have enough time to evaluate the consequences. But we never know where a path truly leads. Robert Frost rightly describes the roads before us in The Road Not Taken. We can see down them only so far (ll. 4-5)--maybe this path leads to being a CEO, a president, or a parent. Then again, so do a multitude of other paths, some not even made yet. Which is best? There is no way to know, because you can only travel one (ll. 11-15). Later we may look back--"Somewhere ages and ages hence" (l. 17) and impose significance and value to the choices we made, the roads we followed, the trails we blazed, but that imposition will be an imposition, not objective truth, which is why Frost describes his imposition in line 20 as being told "with a sigh" (l. 16).

We are left with multiple paths and roads before us. In between, there is some elbow room to blaze our own trails in the sense that we are creating novelty, but not something completely new. Perhaps it isn't a trail we blaze, but rather a unique combination of routes (cf. Frost, l. 14).

Following Emerson's dictum may be good advice, but not for everyone in every situation. For some of us, the paths before us leave a trail that those behind us cannot help but follow, despite how harmful they are (fast food, fundamentalism, hate). Leadership for the sake of leading is not good like Emerson's quote seems to imply. Emerson's quote without context says simply to lead and always lead, not to lead to good results. More important than blazing trails are getting to good destinations and helping others along their journey.