April 2018

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Dedicated to Isabella

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you---
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it's that simple?
Langston Hughes, “Theme for English B”

My oldest niece, Isabella, let me help her with a college application essay last week. She was struggling to come up with an essay that she believed in. Before my brain tumors and having to leave teaching, I worked with hundreds of students on this kind of essay, so it was a treat to get to know Isabella better AND to get to teach again—especially without having to grade the essay. I am guiding her through a writing process, and I can see already how much truer this draft is than her previous one. (Well, I only saw one. Apparently, there were 25.)

Isabella’s an amazing person. Her younger girl-cousins eagerly await the attention of Princess Isabella. She’s an exceptional student in a challenging school and, like her mom, has the gifts of receiving A’s AND being socially popular. (I haven’t talked to her friends. I’m guessing here.)

Isabella’s kind, responsible, and smart, but she seems afraid of this essay that seems to have so much riding on it: will she get into the University of Her Dreams? I hope so. I told her that I can’t guarantee that she’ll get into her dream university, but I can promise that she’ll have a good essay.

I thought of her during the dharma talk at yoga on Monday morning. My yoga teacher, Dawn, talked about Isvarapranidhana, a Sanscrit word that she translated as “surrender.”

Dawn said that in Isvarapranidhana we commit ourselves to full effort and release our attachment to a result. I thought of my own mantra when I was teaching, a mantra that I arrived at after years of not being able to make the difference in public schools for changes that I felt needed to happen, especially for our poorest students: “Do the right thing even if it doesn’t make any difference.” This is hard. I worked weekends and nights and rose around four in the morning to teach my students about skills and, I hoped, to help them see hope in their lives.

Sometimes my students did see hope, and when I could see them grow hopeful, my heart, like the Grinch’s heart, grew three and a half times that day. When they didn’t see hope, and they went to jail or to “juvie” (an affectionate-sounding term for what is essentially jail for juveniles), skipped class to do drugs in the nearby park, cut themselves or died a violent death, I had trouble surrendering. When I read about or witnessed poor kids receiving poor educations, I had trouble surrendering, too, and I felt a lot of sadness and anger, emotions that sometimes overwhelmed me.

In our class’s discussion on Isvarapranidhana, my fellow yogi Tiger commented on the importance of paying attention to an honorable process and not becoming attached to outcome. Easier said than done.

I wondered that morning if Isabella can surrender the results of her labor, years of outstanding academic work. I wondered if she could see what I can see: that she’s much more than a smart teenager who grew up in privilege and has worked hard for her accomplishments. I’d like her to write an essay that reveals the fine person that she is to the University of Her Dreams. Heck, I’d like for her to see the fineness that I see in her.

Isabella is unusually aware of, curious about, and respectful of other people. When she was quite young, before elementary school, and being gay was much more controversial than it is today, she would corner my partner Ann or me at any family gathering. She would find us in a quiet space and ask questions like, “Why aren’t there any boys in your family?” and “Why don’t you have rings?” (We do now but didn’t then). 

Isabella never got to the end of her questions, but eventually we would be noticed, and she would have to release whomever she had captured for this time. The next time we’d see her, maybe six months later, she’d again find one of us in a quiet space and pick up right where she left off. There was no end to her questions. She could see that we lived differently than her family. She wasn’t judgmental. She was loving, and she was curious. She was figuring out her world.

Throughout her young life, she’s also been close to, curious about and respectful and loving toward the service people who have worked in her parents’ suburban home with its own pool and tennis court. Many of these service people are Latina and have come to the U.S. with green cards or maybe no cards. (I don't know. I'm guessing.) She and her family have visited Ecuador (a testament to her mother's kindness as well) and met their families. She loves them: that is clear. She seeks to speak Spanish, recognizing the power that speaking English holds. 

As Isabella and I brainstormed what she might write her essay about, she told me that she loves to argue the more difficult side in a debate. She loves the intellectual challenge. She doesn’t necessarily argue what she believes, but there are three things she won’t argue against: gay rights, immigration rights, and one more very important thing that I can’t now remember.

Isabella is diligent and smart, an academic superstar: those gifts mean that she will be able to live in the world and work for the call of her heart. They may make her successful, whatever that means.

Isabella is also extraordinary, whether or not the University of Her Dreams sees that. She is heartful and soulful. She is kind, compassionate and creative. She is a curious, independent thinker. Her heart is why she’s extraordinary.

As I thought about Isvarapranidhana and Isabella, my teacher Dawn invited us to dedicate our practice to someone or some ideal if we wanted to. I usually dedicate my practice to something like peace or gratitude. This time I dedicated my practice to a person for the first time: for Isabella.

May both of us live from our souls, with an awareness always of the Divine.

This morning, the dharma talk continued with my teacher Victoria. Susan, who was on the mat next to me, talked about how hard it is to age and to see people she loves lose their abilities to do the things they have always loved: she mentioned hiking several times. Because I, with my brain tumors, have experienced loss, including hiking in the mountains that I love so much, I listened intently.

Susan talked not so much of her friends' struggle; in fact, she spoke of their strength and wisdom in their time of loss. She spoke of her own struggle. Her voice tightened as spoke of a close friend with MS.

Susan is not at a place of surrender right now, and I told her that after my brain surgery, I thought that surrender was more difficult for the people who love me than it has been for me. My choice seems to be either to surrender and to find new ways of living or to be miserable. And with only this life to live (so far as I know), I’m not going to choose misery.

I hope that Susan will introduce me to her friend with MS and that she and Ann will go on a lovely hike that I can no longer do. I hope they’ll show me photos and tell me what they saw and smelled. But I'm not attached to that hope. At least I don't think I am.

As Susan I talked, our teacher Victoria joined us, and the three of us talked about surrender and our lives. We each spoke vaguely of our connections to addiction, and I was thinking about the people I love who are learning to live sober, and about the second step (if I remember right) in Alcoholics Anonymous:  Come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 

Perhaps as humans we are most addicted to control and that in this life we are learning that we don't have control. I imagine that in some learning place in the universe, my soul performed poorly in this concept and I was sent here to learn. My soul must have been a particularly poor student to have required that I learn from brain tumors.

I  hope Isabella writes a true essay. I hope she gets into the University of Her Dreams. If she doesn't, I hope she finds her place elsewhere. I hope Ann and Susan take a lovely hike and tell me about it. I hope I meet Susan's friend. I hope we can all have peace.



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