Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Living in the Layers

The Layers
Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
Though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.


This poem first greeted me through the voice of a student, standing at the front of the room, alone. I experienced it through his adolescent lens, and the words pierced me, unexpectedly, with the same sort of intensity Franz Kafka spoke of when he said we only need to read books that wound and stab us.

It arrived a second time when my friend Nancy offered it up for Kevin's birthday anthology. I read it again, through that lens, the lens of 60 years passing, tumbling like brilliant leaves tossed by the strong hand of the wind, falling beneath an oak that continues to grow, to sprout, to shine brilliantly despite what nature offers.

Nancy brought it to my attention again, a third time, at a department meeting--a meeting where we all came together to set our course, to take control of the oars, and attempt to triumph over the rough and muddy waters of educational uncertainty, a meeting where smart and inspiring minds pressed to embrace an inevitable shift with vigor, perspective and compassion. There, in that room filled with colleagues I respect beyond language, Nancy provided yet another lens as she read Stanley Kunitz's poem.

I brought the poem to my own attention today, as I listened to our principal speak about the changes, the uncertain changes we all know hover along the horizon. As I watched him speak, my eyes stirred beneath, calling up the dew nestled below the surface. It's hard to imagine fighting this fight without him pressing on, sifting through the mud and the muck, championing what's right for kids. It's hard to imagine this building without him, or my life, as a teacher, without a man so committed to affecting change for schools all over Ohio.

It's scary to know little about what's ahead, when so much weight falls on our shoulders. And it's even scarier to know he won't be there to help us pick through the litter and find the gold beneath. I've revered him for nearly seventeen years, half of my life. And today, his retirement finally sunk in as I watched him stand like a pillar in the front of the room. My heart hurt.

And so tonight, with a face "bitterly stinging" with reality, I returned to Kunitz's poem (21). Studying it, pondering it, applying it to my life, I decided that "with my will intact to go/ wherever I need to go,/ and every stone on the road/precious to me.," I need to sift through the wreckage of difficult times, and realize that none of it is going to poison or bury me (22-27). It is not. And it is not, because I have the ability to choose to see it as a layer, a layer that I must live inside, not litter I must live upon.