In All Visible Things. . .

Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg, Austria

One holiday evening this year, I watched the Sound of Music. It’s one of my favorite movies. I love the music, but mostly it makes me recall a four-month mini-sabbatical I had in Salzburg where the movie was filmed. Nostalgia overwhelmed me as I viewed the nuns walking through the Nonnberg Abbey, and the children and their nanny, Julie Andrews, cavorting in the Mirabell Gardens, all set against the Austrian Alps, places I remember from my time there.

I recalled my zimmer with chickens beneath my window, whose eggs I ate for breakfast, and the shop down the street where I could buy a takeout Austrian dinner. I was doing research on school lunch in Europe, and I had access to Salzburg schools because my son, his wife, and my new grandson were living there and through their work had met local educators.

I could go on about the many memories, but what struck me as I watched the moviewas that I was remembering this time as happy when, in truth, it was not. My husband had died three years before, and I was in a prolonged grief, crying easily at almost everything, feeling like a role player in a meaningless life, while struggling to build an authentic one.  The only joy I felt was spending time with my grandson, Peter, a toddler with unlimited wonder at his unfolding world. Otherwise, I spent way too much time in my room, forcing myself to revise field notes of my research observations and to read about cultural learning—with the goal of delaying going to bed and crying myself to sleep. 

It wasn’t a happy time at all! And yet, today I remember it fondly. What is going on, I asked myself, as I reflected on my faulty memory? Was I rewriting the experience to make a bleak time look rosier?  Or was nostalgia for Salzburg and my grandson overriding my memory of unremitting grief. Perhaps my process was a part of a subconscious life review, consolidating my memories into something that would eventually make the whole of my life hang together? Regardless, if I was honest with myself, accurate memory had given way to nostalgia.

I’ve written about nostalgia before in Nostalgia 101, noting that it is healthy and tends towards positive memories. Its highest occurrence is when we are young and old with the middle years of life less given to nostalgia. Experts believe it’s helpful during life transitions when we’re unsure of where we’re going. We can look back and see the past as happy, thus the future feels safer. My time in Austria was part of a long transition to reestablishing my life without my husband. Though I was incredibly sad, deep within me, I believed I’d find my way. That said, I was still troubled by my disparate memories. How could I allow what I knew as truth be glossed over with nostalgia?

I walked around for several days asking myself what does it mean to have conflicted memories. Which one is really true?  Then I started reading Pauline Boss’s The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change. One of her central ideas is that  in adapting to losses, we should not think either/or—which was exactly what I was doing by seeking one truth about my perceptions of my time in Salzburg. She says we need both/and thinking. In terms of the pandemic, she writes: “I am both hungry for alone time and for social contacts; I both disagree with my neighbor and continue talking with him. . . “

After reading this, I revised my thinking.  I was both happy in Salzburg experiencing a beautiful city, and I was deeply sad about losing my husband. I was making progress with finding my way as a researcher and feeling up-ended by the loss of my marriage-infused dreams. I was happy to spend time with my family there, especially my new grandson, and sad that I couldn’t share this with my husband. It feels so right to be able to say all these things, there’s a clarity and truth to the statements that either/or doesn’t provide.

In the days following this insight, I found myself infatuated with both/and thinking, ready to chuck dualism as obsolete.  And like any good revelation, I kept seeing both/and everywhere.  Even the New York Times was onboard, running an op ed about both hating one’s husband and loving him. Then I asked myself if both/and adds up to a whole, and that stopped me in my tracks.  It was too simplistic.

I turned to my fellow blogger, Karen Rose, who assured me that there’s more going on than simple addition, and she pointed me to a passage in Parker Palmer’s new book, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old. The passage isn’t from Palmer, however, rather Thomas Merton in Hagia Sophia. It begins: There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity. . . Suddenly I saw it, the fecundity immanent in all human experience. In Salzburg, I was healing and in pain, and at the same time laying the groundwork for things to come, like my deepening relationship with my grandson, Peter; like insights about the culture of school lunches; even like the relationship with Karen Rose, such that we now write a blog together. 

Two insights—both/and and the fecundity in human experience. Wow, what a way to start a new year!

I floated only a short time on the excitement of these new ideas, mainly because we are living in a pandemic that’s always with us. I cannot help but think about our present situation as a country and planet. Omicron, political dissent, and climate change are among the issues. I am getting towards the end of my life, while others, including my loved ones, are at the beginning and middle. We are all living in uncertainty. My hope is that Merton has it right, beneath the travails of this troubled time are seeds to a new and better world.

Hagia Sophia

Doubt and Reflections

In this short Life that only lasts an hour

How much – how little – is within our power

-Emily Dickenson

Almost a year ago I asked Fran Vavrus if I could have a copy of her new book, Schooling as Uncertainty, and I would write a review in return.  I finished reading it some time ago, but pulling my thoughts together to prepare a review for a scholarly journal – something I am usually able to do easily – has been challenging.  As I texted Fran ( and have repeated to many other people), her work gob smacked me:  I thought I had signed up for an exegesis of her ethnographic experience studying women’s education in Tanzania – a country about which I know so little that I was sure that it would be an intriguing read.  Instead, what I encountered was a book that is equal parts scholarship, personal memoir, and a timeless story. 

Fran’s big message is that the accepted mantra, “get more education to get ahead and have a good life,”, may be accurate for some populations, but it obscures the circumstances that disrupt the narrative’s accuracy for individuals.  She recounts in loving and sometimes intimate details the histories of talented rural Tanzanian children, whose life paths she has followed for years.  Their journeys  through secondary or higher education – some successful, some not – often depended less on their own effort and more on the appearance (or disappearance) of family members or mentors who could afford school fees, or their family’s geographic location at  a convenient distance from schools for which they were qualified.  As she wrote searingly about those whose chances were permanently derailed by the AIDS crisis, which orphaned or impoverished many, I was struck less by the foreignness of their stories than by their congruence with my experience.    

I read Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age, when I was in graduate school in New York City.  It was the late 60s – a peak period of street crime and also the “great school wars”, where poor parents in Ocean Hill-Brownsville rallied for more say in their children’s schools and teachers called for more professional determination.  The conflict was a true dilemma – both sides had a point.  Those experiences led to my 40-year obsession with studying urban schools.  But, in the end, it is still often the children who have lost.  Big visions, like the Great Society or Eugene Lang’s I have a Dream, did not dent the immediate realities of family economics, under-resourced and segregated schools, and the distraction of immediate opportunities that promised survival.

Ok, so those are the facts, backed up by solid analysis.  But what about all the other unseen stories of uncertainty that are deeply painful although not associated with dramatic, newsworthy failure?  Even for my friends who are not impoverished, life has a way of interfering with the dream that education is easily available and can open all doors.  Just as in Tanzania, early marriage or unplanned pregnancy, a parent’s death, or temporary homelessness throw careful plans into disarray:  the hope for something big “out there” is abandoned (or delayed).  For my mother, being orphaned in the Great Depression meant that the generous uncle who paid her tuition at the University of Minnesota thoughtfully added a requirement that she become a teacher (sure employment) rather than a biologist (risky, especially for a woman). Karen Martha waved her sister off to college, but had to confront her parents’ financial collapse when it was her turn.

Uncertainty is always close to the surface as Fran interweaves her own life experiences in the U.S. with those of friends and colleagues in Tanzania.  Her personal stories make me cringe with recognition.  Fran’s dissertation was viewed as “theoretically inadequate” by a single faculty member, which required her to spend vast amounts of energy and time in revisions and prevented her from graduating on time; my experience was similar, although my advisor bulldozed the less powerful member of my committee.  Fran’s critical promotion to a tenured position was almost derailed, again by a single faculty member.  In my friend Doug’s case, an erratic committee in one of the U.S.’s most prestigious institutions sent his five years of post-graduate work into a black hole, to be resuscitated much later at a different institution.  I stepped off the tenure track for a decade to avoid the tenuous assistant professor role while I was a young mother (no, you can’t have it all….) and managed, largely through unanticipated opportunities, to get back on track. Those are happy accidents.  But I have seen other colleagues sidelined because they didn’t follow all the unwritten rules on the way to tenure – or had a dean who disliked them.  Conformity is required, but it does not eliminate uncertainty.

Speaking from my own vantage point, the timeless story in Fran’s book is more than a cautionary tale about the certainty of financial and personal payoff from education.  Instead, her narrative leads me to consider each of the uncertainties I have encountered and how my struggle and occasional despair remains within me but disappears from the abbreviated public arc of a life that looks seamlessly successful (my close friends know better).  As with Fran, thinking about my personal encounters with uncertainty at this juncture in my life has affected how I retell my story, not only to myself but to others.  Perhaps that is why I do not run out of things to write about for Karens’ Descant….

A final reaction to Fran’s description of the effects of Tanzania’s post-colonial turmoil on educational careers requires me to consider how individual experiences are situated in their larger context.  When and where we are born – in times of affluence, war, or environmental crisis – adds an existential uncertainty that we cannot escape.  Like most people, I have intense reactions to social unrest as it happens but often become aware of its long-term impact only much later.  I grew up aware of the magnetic evil of McCarthyism in the 1950s because academics were among those he targeted, and my father was at the beginning of his own career as a professor.  A lasting consequence is that I do not trust the wisdom of crowds and popular opinion. I grew into early adulthood in the 60’s and early 70s, when it felt as if the foundations of the country were at risk, so aptly captured in the last few months by Ken Burns’ probing visual chronicle of Mohammed Ali, and the (for me) very personal movie about the Boys Who Said No! to the Vietnam War.  Now, as the country feels, once again, as if it has lost its collective mind, I am pricked again by the menacing prescience of William Butler Yeats’ Second Coming, written in 1919, just after World War I:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned

Fran’s depiction of the larger conditions over which we have no control echoes throughout her story, initially set in one of the poorest countries in Africa, but also situated in her own experiences.  I am humbled by the resilience that accepting uncertainty brings to those who live with it as a fact of their own and other’s lives. The art of muddling through life’s inevitable ambiguities and failures is not a skill that we usually promote to our children (or grandchildren), but as I view events through the rear-view mirror, it feels like one of the most important lessons.  Fran has reminded me that, when I cling too closely to something, the universe is laughing.