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A Free Pass
To the world beyond the gateless gate
Last Thursday I drove north for my final class with the kids at St. Ignatius elementary. This stretch of teaching was a long haul given holiday breaks, a snowstorm or two, etc. Something like sixteen weeks to get in twelve classes. The COVID surge after the holidays added significant stress to the entire endeavor and I was feeling relief for having gotten through it. Yet the overriding emotion as I approached the final meeting was bittersweet; that comes with the knowledge that most of these kids, if not all of them, I’ll never see again, and one does become attached to them and their stories. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t know how full-time teachers manage it.
Just north of Arlee about midway up the Jocko Valley highway 93 ascends a short hill and crosses the Jocko River via a small bridge. It was a gray day with high clouds. As I watched, a bald eagle, low over the bare limbs of the bank-lining cottonwoods, was flying a southeast angle with a large branch clutched in its talons. It was a short viewing yet profound; enough so that I pulled off the highway not far ahead to capture my immediate thoughts in my notebook. I tried to make sense of those thoughts when I addressed the students before their big “gala reading” on stage of the school’s cafeteria but I don’t feel I did a very good job. This is an attempt to make better sense of it.
This eagle, bearing the branch, was clearly constructing or bolstering its nest for the year’s coming hatchlings. I thought of those chicks, pushed deep down into the nest, protected on all sides by the twigs, sticks and branches gathered and secured by their parents. There is a metaphor of sorts here, I’m thinking, as it relates to these students: the classroom as nest, and teaching poetry a means to prepare the kids for the buffeting they will take from the wider world as they emerge. A grandiose idea, of course, but it is my tendency to think big (if I am thinking at all). As they grow older, how long will these kids look like adults before they actually are? Not so dissimiler from young bald eagles, who may take four or five years to grow their distinctive white heads and tails, yet they appear as adults and are often mistaken for mature golden eagles … when in reality they are actually still just goofy teenagers.
There is more to this story. In teaching poetry I tell these students that the least important part of the process is the actual words on the page. “The purpose of poetry,” Robert Bly says, “is not to learn more about poetry, but more about life.” That is key. So I teach, or try to teach, them the importance of observation, of paying attention. And we talk a whole lot about love. Love for ourselves, for each other, for the world. Because without love, what is the point of living?
In Anishinaabe culture we recognize Seven Sacred Teachings, or the Seven Grandfathers Teachings. One of these is Love, or Zaagidwin, as represented by the Eagle (migizi). Eagle spreads her wide wings over the world to shelter us all in love, same as she does to shade her chicks from the heat of the sun.
The eagle represents love because he has the strength to carry all the teachings. The eagle has the ability to fly highest and closest to the creator and also has the sight to see all the ways of being from great distances. The Eagle’s teaching of love can be found in the core of all teachings, therefore an eagle feather is considered the highest honor and a sacred gift. To know love is to know peace. View your inner-self from the perspective of all teachings. This is to know love and to love yourself truly. Then you will be at peace with yourself, the balance of life, all things and also with the creator.
It’s not that I don’t see eagles often, I do. But I was moved at the sight of this eagle, that it happened on this day of all days, when I was deep in the thoughts related to the weight of the upcoming events. I felt Eagle was there to remind me of the significance of what we do when we share our time and whatever we can teach with children. I take it very seriously, yet it is good to be reminded from time to time by the same spirits who guided all of our ancestors. Just because we don’t look to them as often as we should it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. That they don’t have prehistoric wisdom to share with us.
Then again sometimes an eagle is just an eagle, and her viewer merely fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. My own continued survival in this world demands nothing less than never accepting such an encounter at face value, though. I want the higher meaning. I want the story. There is always one there, and I don’t want to miss any of it.
I spent this past weekend working with students from places around the CSKT Reservation just north of me, as well as from the town of Harlem and students from the Fort Belknap Indian Community (Home of the Nakoda and Aaniiih Nations). This was at the request of the fine folks from the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival as part of their “Teen Doc Intensive” program. These high schoolers are budding filmmakers and I was asked to be the subject for a documentary about … well, me. It was all a vehicle for them to learn the various tasks related to bringing such a film to life. I had a great time fielding their questions, being directed this way and that, hanging out with them, etc. Their film will debut as part of the festival on Friday the 25th, but I don’t know yet what time. There will be a panel discussion of it after it plays, which I have been asked to participate in. Of course I said yes!
Later it will be available to stream via the BSDFF’s YouTube page, if I’m not mistaken. I’ll provide the link via this newsletter when it is available. Meanwhile, interested locals may keep an eye on my twitter garbage for a heads-up once I know the when/where of its debut screening. I’m strangely excited for it!
THIS JUST IN
The film is playing at the Roxy in Missoula at 4:00pm, Friday, February 25th, as part of the “Schoolhouse Docs Block #4.”
One final classroom-based story. My friend Chris Dombrowski invited me to visit one of his creative writing classes at the university and I was happy to do so. We talked about all kinds of writing and focused specifically, at least as it relates to my work, on Descended from a Travel-worn Satchel. I enjoyed the discussion and the students asked great questions. Our conversation led me to describe one of my favorite Bashō passages, this from his haibun “A Visit to the Kashima Shrine,” and I butchered the paraphrase. But talking about it reminded me of just how much I love it. This excerpt comes from the Penguin Classics edition of The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, translated by Noboyuki Yuasa, and it goes like this:
“I wandered out on to the road at last one day this past autumn, possessed by an irresistible desire to see the rise of the full moon over the mountains of the Kashima Shrine. I was accompanied by two men. One was a masterless youth and the other was a wandering priest. The latter was clad in a robe black as a crow, with a bundle of sacred stoles around his neck and on his back a portable shrine containing a holy image of the Buddha-after-enlightenment. This priest, brandishing his long staff, stepped into the road, ahead of all the others, as if he had a free pass to the World beyond the Gateless Gate. I, too, was clad in a black robe, but neither a priest nor an ordinary man of this world was I, for I wavered ceaselessly like a bat that passes for a bird at one time and for a mouse at another.”
These are the things that keep me alive, friends. The “irresistable desire” to see the full moon rise over a specific place. The spiritual connection between the appearance of an eagle experienced in a singular moment and my every day life ... and a similar connection to a fellow curious poet a couple centuries dead. Or even just the opportunity to be a cranky old graybeard fielding questions from the curious young. All of this is everything.
May we all experience such beautifully humbling gifts in our lives!
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