Monday, July 10, 2006


Stretching Rainflies in a Storm

When I was teaching we used to take the kids out three times a year for trips into the outdoors. The shortest trip lasted five days and the longest lasted ten to fourteen days. The idea was to take the kids away from their learned definition of themselves and away from their distractions, take them away from their electronics and their comfortable beds so as to encounter something more elemental, more profound. I lived for those moments in the outdoors, for those moments when my own clarity and profundity had a clear, untrammeled stage.

In the middle of a three-day rainstorm once, I went from tent to tent adjusting rainflies, showing the kids how it was done in the process. I had good equipment for myself and knew how to take care of myself. I was dry and operated in a zone of joy that couldn’t be dampened by the deluge of rain. I knew my job was simply to pass on knowledge of how live in these circumstances and there was completeness in the act. What to most would be a cause for discomfort and grand complaint was to me primal, elemental, and transfiguring. There is great power in this elemental state and much to learn from it.

We spend a great deal of money and energy to avoid our elemental state, find myriad ways to distract ourselves. One of the things we had to confront as teachers was the fact that many of our students came from very wealthy families where they could normally purchase any level of distraction they wanted. Why learn to properly pitch a tent in a storm when one can book an expensive room, even buy the hotel? Indeed, one of my students was an heir to the Hilton fortune.

Once my headmaster said to me, “John, I’ve come to the conclusion that money is a detriment in these kids lives.” When Christ said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven, he wasn’t knocking money as much as he was talking about money’s ability to buy distraction from the elemental real nature of life. In our present age though, we have suffered a democratization of distraction so that distraction from the elemental real is not just the province of the rich, but is something attainable by us all. It is our way of life and something we view as an inalienable right.

I have been gone from posting for a while as I pondered my relationship with writing. It is sometimes disheartening to have little feedback or a sense of effect. I’ve found though, that teaching is a long-term proposition. One student of mine who was on the above trip came from a very dysfunctional family that was rife with alcohol and drug problems. He himself descended into addiction when he left our school. One day, six or seven years later, I looked up from my desk as this young man entered the room. His eyes were clear and there was a smile on his face as he came over to embrace me. He had gone through recovery and come out the other side.

I realized that in his days with us, we had provided the only family and stability he had known. Even in his darkest days he had drawn on that memory to help him toward clarity. We couldn’t save him from his circumstances, but we had been able to provide him with a light he could use if he so chose. So I have to write in an untrammeled way without knowing the impact of the writing. Let’s call it stretching rainflies in a storm. I do it to pass on the knowledge of encountering something elemental and of the joy that can be found in not being too distracted. Passing it on is simply what I do. Will I look up from my desk someday to see your clear eyes?

Imagine we are in the forest somewhere, far from your distractions. Here is how you tie the knot. Don’t let your rainfly touch the tent.

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