Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Great Reality Show

Today we have been slowly eating an elephant, cleaning up after a long Open House yesterday in which nobody, thankfully, felt the need to clean up as the day went on. So wax from the candles on his antlers dripped onto the brass reindeer, plates and red napkins and silver forks were laid down anywhere, cookies spent the night on the dining room table. Just now I took a rest from straightening up to lunch with last Sunday's New York Times, and scanned the Week in Review, which is always fun this time of year, and even better at the end of a decade.

I am struck by how various columnists and cartoonists talk about the same thing - that this was a decade in which massive dreams were punctured and failed. Columnist Frank Rich poses Tiger Woods as an example of a delusion somebody should have seen through, just like the housing bubble and the teetering accumulation of consumer debt. Shared delusions that fell to ground with a thud.

What this brought to my mind was my own series of dreams. Last night, as we relaxed in the after-party, I told a friend how I entered the PhD program at Ohio State in 1990 to fulfill a dream of teaching I had held onto for 20 years. And how five years later I walked out of the program with the degree and the knowledge that I never wanted to teach college again, not like that.

Many things had gone into the formation of that dream, including some fine experiences in my first years of teaching in the early seventies. And there were many ways higher education had changed in the years since, a new cynicism in the students, careerism in the faculty. But to pare it down to the bare bones, my four years of teaching in the graduate program showed me that it was not at all what I remembered. Or dreamed of.

I don't know what a dream is made of. Parts and pieces, like everything else. How my mother was so impressed, and referred to me back then as "my daughter, the professor." How it was the first time I had a job where I was treated as an equal and allowed to create my own work, assign anything. The seventies were a time of ferment when we could play with new ways of doing the old thing, trying to teach kids to love the written word. It was a time of change, when change seemed important, and positive. "Not always so," Suzuki Roshi cautions us, but I hadn't read him back then. I graded essays listening to Hair.

This for sure: you hold on to a dream with your mind, probably both halves of it. A dream is an idea, generated by the mind, clung to by whatever that mechanism is, mostly mental I suspect, but probably some in the body as well. Americans are particularly prone to dreams. The country was founded by people who dreamed wealth would save them, and wealth could be found around the edge of the world if the dragones didn't get you.

Zen actively discourages us from paying attention to dreams and ambitions. In sitting in meditation, we do nothing but count or watch the breath. We watch ideas rise like little tendrils of smoke from incense out of the mind, and we let them go and return to the breath. We do not run from the cushion to write down our thoughts and dreams; in fact, that is actively discouraged. We are encouraged to be mindful of what life is presenting to us minute by minute, of the small things that need done, and done by us, and done with care.

Last night, after we had discussed our big, difficult dreams, we got to talking about our e-mail inboxes. Mine has ahh, 440 posts sitting in it. A number of them are tagged. Another 2200 rest in the dialysis and transplant boxes, a great collection of information, most of which I haven't yet read. Every year this time I start paring this down, especially that inbox, in the hope of getting to zero. A small dream. An activity, really, like sweeping the path as the wind blows new leaves down.


  1. I really like what you had to say about dreams. Lately, I've been pondering this subject. I think you just answered my questions. I'm going back to one of my blogs, read it, then come back and read this again.. Funny how you ask the universe? a question, and you get an answer...thanks!!!

  2. Thank you. I want to add something to the above - that it might well be the only way I would ever have let go of that dream would be to go ahead and try it, and be plunged into the reality.