That Which Does Not Kill Me

As expatriates living in Egypt, we walked a fine line between the laughable and the ludicrous, sometimes within seconds of each other, and often in the same situation. With so many possible stories from which to choose, I hope you will indulge me in using the local beer – Stella (not to be confused with the Belgian Budweiser) – to illustrate. Stella came in oversized bottles, green or brown, that had to be held up to the light in order to see whether “floaters,” usually some unfortunate cockroach seeking an early sample of the brew, were present. And more often than not, the carbonation had seeped out from an improperly installed bottlecap. Drinking Stella was at the very least a question waiting to be answered, and sometimes it became a great adventure, more than anyone should have just for the sake of drinking beer.

 Local entrepreneurs played upon the quality control of Stella beer. They developed specific fashion lines for the expatriate communities so that two extremely popular T-shirts sold in our ghetto environment were Stella – inspired: “Stella Beer – 10,000 Cockroaches Can’t Be Wrong!” and my favorite, “That Which Does Not Kill Us Makes Us Strong – Stella Beer.” Who am I to argue with burgeoning capitalism?

From my dis ease and ALS vantage point, “That which does not kill us makes us strong” garners a much different meaning than my interpretation of 25 years ago. As I look back at my old normal, the saying might actually be one of the primary stanchions on which I built a major part of my life. “That which does not kill us…” smacks of running at the speed of light right up to the edge of personal disaster, just to see how long you might totter before going over. A false implication of immortality exists in the saying. For many of us, “that which does not kill us,” actually becomes “nothing will kill me, and I will always be strong.” It only takes the kind ministrations of dis ease to contradict the immortality and blur the meaning.

If you know dis ease, then you know a confluence of negative events can be deadly. It can happen very quickly as in a horrible accident where one poor decision cascades into fatality. Or it can happen in slow motion; a floppy foot, a couple of falls, a lump, a hematoma, a diagnosis. It isn’t the speed of the event itself, it’s the confluence, and at some point no matter who you are or what the circumstance, it becomes too much to bear, overwhelming your humanity into a new existence marked by your certain demise. But our human existence is also marked by denial. Since the time of my diagnosis, well-meaning people have shared that “God only gives you what you can handle.” I usually thank them when they say it, for I know they mean to offer me comfort. But such a statement is one that obfuscates our human condition. Something out there will kill us.

This past week, I Skyped with a friend with whom I had not spoken for years. Our conversation, framed in connection and catch up, found us trying to explain in the space of an hour some of the most meaningful events in the time since we last saw each other with all of the success one might have teaching nuclear physics to a three-year-old. Both of us struggled to overcome language and context and emotion and time, bravely seeking to re-create connection. Each of us had a story to tell about our kids, and that story contained real fear – palpable, tangible, sweat streaked and tear stained and just distant enough to allow us to relate the stories in straight tones, yet present enough to still invoke the powerful fight or flight that only a parent experiences. I think that one of us even said, “That which does not kill us…” in an attempt to rationalize tough times in the lives of our kids and the fear we both carried.

We are both old enough to know life’s great lesson – it will always give you more than you can handle.

It isn’t difficult to apply what we both know to my present situation. I have never had a teacher like ALS – so demanding, so exacting, so focused on the outcome. ALS schools me to remain psychologically upright even as she lays me flat. ALS requires me to strategize independence, even as she diminishes my body, forcing me into dependency I neither seek nor want. ALS reveals gradual and sudden loss – pure, heart wrenching, gut scalding. It might seem her real lesson is, “That which does not kill us, actually will,” but I keep learning that one must not end with the obvious answer. The depth of my teacher is far greater than being simply overwhelmed.

We are taught to believe that we have control over things that we do not, that we are personally responsible for such control while life belies the fact. Paradoxically, we know our control is miniscule, dwarfed in its comparison to God the universe and everything, so it might seem our only choice is existential angst. Deeper learning seeks reconciliation, so that through the requirements and diminishment and loss, ALS whispers to me to have faith; the lessons are deeper than the losses, each loss is a teachable moment, an opportunity to grow until growth is no longer possible, a roadmap to the ultimate outcome, a faith in more than the fact of loss. ALS quiets the noise revealing human music and God singing in great statements, credos of faith that we are here in the moment with no influence on the past, and a future always unclear. And if we choose we can go it alone, or we can embrace our big messy human condition together in the struggle to understand a world that of necessity must always be just beyond our comprehension. The noise abates, and what is left is a teacher’s purity.

Open your heart. Breathe in faith. Embrace your humanness. Glimpse God. Sing.

We will always be given more than we can handle. We will always have the choice as to how we respond – collectively, singly, the great choral hallelujah, the quiet solo aria. There is space for both so that in the end when we must go gently alone, the gift becomes apparent if you have eyes to see or ears to hear or skin to sense. That which makes us strong is what we can shoulder in concert, in tryst with each other, blessed by the communion of saints and sinners with lusty voices trying to go it together until we are released into the magnificent universe to rejoin that which we cannot understand with one, great, hymnal, solo aspiration – a final ah.

I think you could drink to that, although if it is a Stella beer, you might want to check for floaters.

Sandy Hook

I was working on a blog entry, a tortured affair that was probably too much of something or other for its own good, when the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School took place. After the killing of so many children and their teachers, I just don’t have it in me to comment on anything but our collective dis ease. The primal feelings evoked by such evil is beyond anything I can adequately do justice to in a blog. If you were like me, the sight of our President struggling to hold his emotions in check, speaking the unspeakable, was a mirror of the anger-grief churning inside as the enormity of the tragedy was further revealed. And once again, I felt the despair that our human journey is at a crossroads where our intentions–beautiful and transcendent, compassionate and caring, loving and forgiving, intelligent and thoughtful–continue to retreat in confusion and horror from the enormous evil we can and will inflict upon one another.

Who needs ALS to speak dis ease when horribly afflicted men-children perpetrate such heinous acts? For me Sandy Hook is personal.

I love a woman who teaches music to little children. I gaze at her as our understanding of the full horror continues to unfold, and I realize that it was teachers like my Ev, locking down classrooms, telling the children they were loved so that if the killer came to them, love would still be their final moment, holding the horrific sights at bay for as long as they could, asking the children to close their eyes, to perhaps keep one last vestige of any innocence their five and six and seven and eight year old lives deserved. I cannot imagine the haunting, terrifying dreams these incredibly strong and caring and competent teachers, women, will know in the coming years. We now know that the six women killed did everything they could to stop the killer. They were brave, and they were professional, and they placed themselves between children and evil in an attempt to save them.

As a newly retired dean of a school of education, I cannot help but see the faces of the young pre-service teachers we prepared for teaching careers. For them, this is a life choice, not a stepping stone. It is a calling, a voice that says to them that a commitment to children is a far greater thing than the salary and esteem of another profession. Each of them will receive training, information, practice in how to mitigate horror if it should come knocking. And with that in mind, they will commit to creating a loving environment where all children learn. While not mutually exclusive, the skill and artistry required is enormous.

And let me share that there were a few times in my life as a principal where I felt my own safety threatened. Dawn Hochsprung was the principal of a K-4 school, and if you have seen her Twitter account, you see a principal who believed in projecting her entire being in support of her kids and teachers, underscoring their successes, bucking them up to the next challenge, urging them to see the joy in learning, defining her work with passion and love. I feel I know this remarkable woman for I have been privileged to work with so many like her, educators who skillfully bring teachers and kids and parents into a fold where school is opportunity after opportunity, an engaging world of wonder, a place where hard work is appreciated. She gave her life on a day when I am sure that the challenge of the upcoming holidays and keeping the kids somehow engaged was foremost on her mind. Not in her wildest dreams would she have predicted the terrible events to transpire and what would be required of her.

The faith required of parents to trust the safety of their schools cannot help but be tested. To send your six year old off to school on a Friday, to never see her alive again would crush your soul. Anyone who is a parent knows the normal safety fears that we carry for our children. The loss of so many children is so unfathomable, so overwhelming, so undefinable, so wrong, so wrong. My sons are grown, and I still fear for them and their lovely women. To lose your young child in such horrible circumstances would be harder than anything. I cannot help it. The grief swirls through my soul.

I cannot leave the above without considering some very preliminary thoughts about what we should do. I am sure others will have far better ideas than me, but here is a beginning.

Remember the saying, “Guns don’t kill people, people do?” Let’s agree with the point and start a discussion about responsibility. When do we begin to take responsibility for the fact that there is no meaningful way to intervene on behalf of an “adult” with serious mental health issues that could lead to violence? I recognize the possibility of abuse here, but common sense and logic would lead us to conclude that there must be better ways. An 18-20 year old, troubled to the point of homicide, is not going to seek out help on his own. We need better ways to provide meaningful interventions.

The temptation will be to forget, to find ease in the blessed amnesia of denial. We will find ourselves wanting to blame, to marginalize, to distance ourselves from the perpetrator and the illness he manifested. We will never find resolution this way. It is time we embrace the reality that the mix of guns and mental illness is too complex for a single, once and for all solution. It is immature to think otherwise. We need dialogue about mental illness that is decidedly different. The ease of collective amnesia will only allow more and more manifestation of such events as Sandy Hook. We need the adults to show up.

And in the name of responsibility, whether you like it or not, we need an educator’s sense of propriety. That means we don’t get to marginalize others due to their challenges. They are our children, and we need to take responsibility for them, not distance ourselves as if it couldn’t happen to us. This means that all our children need us to claim them, not just the easy ones. Educators do not get to be selective, and neither should our society at large.

Only when we have this dialogue on mental health, can we begin to have a meaningful discussion about guns.

It will be tempting to go after the gun laws. For whatever reason, Americans own so many guns that the effect can only be cosmetic. I am not saying that we should not talk about what we want gun laws to do, but as an old dyed in the wool liberal, I already know it will be a lot of energy expended for little return. Gun ownership is legitimated by our laws. The estimate is that there are over 300 million guns in the US. The horse is out of the barn. But, we can certainly have much more meaningful requirements for owning a gun.

A Honda Civic can also be a lethal weapon in the wrong hands. Why don’t we require licenses for everyone, much like we do for driving, with background checks, and periodic refresher courses and checkups on safe storage and whether one still meets the licensing requirements of gun ownership? I am an adult with disabilities that preclude my driving safely. Just as my eligibility for a drivers license should be reevaluated against my ability, so too should we ask the same of gun owners.

And everyone–buyers and sellers–needs to meet the standards over and over again.

Finally, we need to recognize that many of the best solutions to guns and mental illness will be local. What works in Wyoming might not work in Minneapolis, and vice versa. This also means we need ongoing dialogue, constantly holding ourselves responsible to work the tensions between safety and security, individual freedom and social responsibility.

My heart is broken by the events in Newtown. I take this so personally as a teacher, a principal, a preparer of new teachers and principals, a father, a citizen. Platitudes will not help, and the only inappropriate response is to not engage in the dialogue with respect and truthfulness.

I will return to my blog next week with a seasonal thought, but today, I hug my wife and sons and daughters-in-law a little more tightly and thank God they are here and safe.

(F)un(e)real

It is inevitable, even natural for those of us with mortal illness, to think about our own funerals at some point in the dis ease cycle. Before you become overly alarmed that this week’s entry will degenerate into maudlin, whimpering memorial instructions, let me assure you that I will not be discussing any postmortem planning today. That isn’t to say that I haven’t thought about it, but you will just have to wait until I have crossed the great divide for such discovery. Instead, I bring up funerals because this week, I had an experience not unlike attending my own wake, my own funeral, causing me to consider how we do death, how we do life in this strange human forms we occupy.

There isn’t a culture or society that doesn’t in some way mark life’s passage through significant ceremony. What might look strange from outside the culture is perfectly normal inside. In high school, I remember reading about a society that dug up the bones of their ancestors every five years to take them out to restaurants, give them cigarettes and take care of those earthly pleasures the deceased might be missing in the afterlife. From my high school perspective, this seemed quite bizarre. But as I began to turn critical lenses on my own culture, my own background, my own society, I realized that this was no more strange than embalming the body of a great philosopher to sit watch in the school hall where he was headmaster, or of the practice of specially built rooms with red and blue lighting to ensure some faked lifelike quality to the mortal remains of the deceased, or the ossuaries in countless European monasteries and cathedrals with their piles of sorted bones from the men and women who served within.

While seemingly strange from an outsider’s point of view, many traditions surrounding death are based on practical need. Jeremy Bentham’s earthly remains aside, the ossuaries and funeral homes and entertainment of ancestral remains resolved cultural issues surrounding the dignified and ceremonial marking of the life and death of humans. And in our culture, the particular tradition found in the practice of the wake has specifically changed in form and function to accommodate both the practical and the sacred needs a postmodern death presents.

It isn’t known for certain when the practice of the wake was started, but most experts would agree that the term wake is from the practice of the family remaining awake with the body over an extended period of time to ensure that the departed was actually deceased. Many pre-20th century horror stories are based in the fear of being buried alive. Such an ending was considered to be so horrific that it inspired tales of the undead wreaking havoc on those who had propagated the horrible act in the first place. And it inspired the practice of sitting with the body and checking from time to time for signs of life to avoid such events. Family wakes morphed into the practice of the visitation when friends view the body of the deceased and greet the family as a sign of respect. The practice continues to evolve, so that remembrance and laughter sometimes encouraged by Irish whiskey and bawdy humor, are considered to be as appropriate as traditional tears and sadness and feelings of loss. It is a shame that we don’t get to attend these events held in our honor while we are alive, for the practice of sharing the deep feelings of love and gratitude for the life well lived is generally reserved for “roasts” of the rich and famous, or as is the case of the wake, for postmortem remembrance.

I cannot help but think that humans are impoverished by such practice.

One of the great gifts of ALS results from its speed of progression. ALS is not a gunshot severed, car accident, 100 days to live brain cancer; the sudden and heart wrenching black hole death that leaves lovers and loves alone in the endless caverns of their souls, pouring grief and remembrance and remorse and regrets for words and feelings unheard and unsaid in some vain attempt to mitigate the departure of their loved one. In each host body, ALS moves at its own speed–50 percent mortality after three years, 80 percent after five and 90 percent after ten. The greatest ALS gift I have experienced is the time afforded wakefulness, Irish whiskey notwithstanding, encouraging both formal and informal expressions of love before mortality, of declarations of meaning before death.

This past week, I was granted the privilege of love’s expression that is usually disavowed and kept separate by the professional environment. My friends and colleagues at St. Thomas offered up a time of remembrance and laughter and tears and joy, allowing us to say what was inexpressible when I left. An emotionally charged and highly meaningful event, it left me exhilarated and exhausted and highly reflective on the nature of life and love and the insistent teaching of dis ease. Indeed, my dis ease teacher asked, “What were you waiting for?”

I guess I was waiting for ALS.

It is so easy to withhold ourselves, for we are taught the benefits of remaining circumspect and less than forthcoming. When I write, I sometimes hold back things that I deem hurtful or embarrassing or that might make me too vulnerable to others, or them to me. Such prudence is a valuable skill to develop, especially in discharging leadership responsibilities where the inappropriate or premature disclosure of information can be harmful. But there is a price to such non-disclosure. We also lose the distinct, even sacred connections, human to human, that make for the spiritual life intertwined in the holiness of each other. If I extrapolate on the teachings of dis ease, the honest sharing of feelings is an opportunity often missed.

I cannot tell you how many times I hear from friends the following: “I read your blog, and I don’t know how you do it. I could never be so open but your openness helps me.” I am thankful for that sentiment, but it inspires in me the dis ease question, “Why not?” Dis ease strips away embarrassment and completes the lesson–we are meant to share this human existence in honesty and love, and our value is in the value we build in each other. To express our lives is an expression of love. To not express that love, to withhold it out of fear that others would think less of us, demeans our humanity, raising fundamental questions of being. What are you waiting for–to tell someone what they have meant to you, what they have done for you, how their presence and love and joys and sorrows and defeats and challenges and victories have fed your soul, nourished your life, taught you a humanness you couldn’t imagine any other way? What are you waiting for to say, “I love you.”

So, attending my own wake while still alive and present, with words and feelings and experiences shared before death’s loss made the event too late, was the circle completed, the human connection sanctified, the love expressed. And honestly, in spite of a few pictures that maybe revealed my lack of judgment about hairstyle in the eighties, it is the most sublime experience I could imagine. I am thankful and awed and blessed by my colleagues and students.

What was I waiting for?

Untitled

In Minnesota, the weather can turn and change and spin on a dime. At the beginning of this past week–sunny days with temperatures in the high 70s, trees full of color glittering in bright sunshine, and blue skies clear as a bell, glorious to behold–held sway. In less than 12 hours, summer’s last gasp was blown away by blustery winds, and trees once clad in autumnal beauty stood naked rattling against gray, snow swept skies. It is the earliest I have ever seen snow in my life. And the weather of the week symbolized the journey from a day before dis ease was my constant companion to a day where I was lucky enough to grieve the greatest loss thus far. This week, on a day when the sun could not break through, and clouds hung heavy and oppressive in their steely color, I said farewell to my beloved colleagues and friends and began the life that I have sought to avoid for 22 months. On Thursday, I stepped down from the responsibilities of working for the first time in 45 years.

I don’t want to wallow in the causes. Suffice it to say that dis ease has asked me to turn my face to a future that is just a little closer than I wish it to be. To stop working is a statement of physical health that I have twisted and turned and denied and avoided, balancing on a razor’s edge atop an increasingly widening precipice, hiding out until the reality that stalked me had passed by, embracing any and all solutions that would allow me to continue something that felt like life well lived. Stopping work means overwhelming emptiness, blind grief pressing down on my eyes and my heart, light pulled from meaningful engagement and passion and complexity and joy and yes, occasional irritation that allowed me to be in communion with so many people of faith toward some common good. We stood together on behalf of our children, the poor, the vulnerable, those who would require wise leadership, or effective education, or healing counsel. I won’t wallow in the causes.

I want to tell you three privileges granted to me, just three.

On my last day of work, I was allowed the privilege of speaking with my colleagues one more time, a privilege of tears and love and hugs and kisses and the knowledge of just how blessed I have been. On the day that I left, I was granted the privilege of a professional coda–one last restatement of a theme of gathering in which the participants, knowing this was my last day suggested, “We don’t have to do this you know;” respecting my answer, “Please let’s do this according to plan;” fostering one last spirited communion with good people who have the well-being of my beloved college in their bones, allowing a professional punctuation to my too short career. And on the day that I left, one of my colleagues reminded me of a dear friend who had made it his practice to never let a valued educator leave the building for the last time alone. I was given the privilege of facing the end with my remarkable second floor staff, in its entirety, walking with me as I rolled one last time as dean of the college, down the hall to the elevator that would take me to my waiting van below. These are three privileges I wanted to tell you, three.

And as I reread the above, I want to tell you three losses, three losses suddenly clear.

In the past month, knowing Thursday must eventually arrive, I turned my energy and attention with precise, pinpoint focus on the tasks required so that I could believe all would carry on. I turned my energy and attention to the tasks of succession, the last day, moving out, moving past. And I missed beauty and companionship and love right in front of me.

In the past month, I missed the death of a dear brother in ALS. Rob was one who changed the conversation about the dis ease. His postings in the forums were in the thousands, and he exhorted us to take anything we could share, anything we could give, anything that could further the understanding of this insidious sickness and offer it freely in new ways, ways that might not be understood by the research powers that be, but might, with creativity and new methodology result in effective treatments. But even more important was his generosity and his bravery. He took on, in a kind but firm way, the hard stuff of dying. And he chose no extraordinary measures, and I missed his death and the chance to thank him.

And in the past month, I missed the beauty of life lived in the moment, because I existed in the future. I missed subtle hints of physical loss that left me surprised, angry and humiliated as they were suddenly realized. I missed knowing the last time even when the last time was screaming in my face. And when the last times came, I was so focused on the final ending, I missed their beginnings.

Three plus three.

Cathy Wurzer of MPR asked me how I would think of myself, once I stopped working. Perhaps it is my music background, for musicians learn to think of themselves as musicians first, and then what they do, where they do it and for whom as punctuation to the fact. I cannot help but think of Yo Yo Ma. He is first and foremost a ‘cellist, remarkably accomplished in the West’s great 17th through 20th century works, then adding new ears, new skills in Eastern, African, Brazilian and even traditional American genres. And he uses these skills and his most accomplished core identity to venture into new venues beyond the traditional concert hall, so that space and time and music and Yo Yo Ma are one and the same.

Though my musician identity does not deserve mention in the same breath as Yo Yo Ma, music taught me early on to balance the strange conditional tensions between who I am, what I do and where I do it. This is the bizarre walk so many of us are required to walk these days. Each of us brings an identity, a core human to the task at hand. Each of us refines our skills, our capabilities, our techné into some level of more or less competence. And more often than not, we are asked to hold these things separate and isolated from each other. Loyalty to place and colleagues is supplanted by “doing the job,” and the self-protection of a “work isn’t life” attitude encourages us to operate in an unholy arena of siloed selves, where never the person we are, the capabilities we have developed, and the places where we bring these human gifts, should meet. It is no wonder that we feel so disjointed and at odds with ourselves. In the name of something else–profit, power, efficiency, effectiveness–balance is diminished.

My answer for Cathy was based in balance and music and education. I have been blessed to work in a place where identity and capability and space intertwine and become one. I was granted the opportunity to bring who I was, to develop new capacities along the way in a space that changed to reflect the needs at hand, and I became the teacher that I was destined to become. Balance compels me to teach a little when the need arises.

Minnesota weather speaks a past month of knowing the balance between summer and autumn, privilege and loss. Grief’s hint of winter’s death remains raw in my heart.  My future is more real than ever before, for such grief is just rehearsal for the great performance, in spaces where identity and capacity and place are synergistic, where loss and privilege are the blessings of a life well lived. And I will turn my teacher’s face toward the next dis eased space and the next, and hope to God I grow enough to remain balanced in the moments life’s winter will bring.

And if nothing else, I know the path to the final place need not be walked alone.

Summer in the City

It is summer in the city, and early summer means scrutinizing the year’s successes and failures, challenges and opportunities, missed possibilities and veritable triumphs. If you are not part of school culture it is reasonable to wonder, why all this reflection in the second week of June; and if you dance the dance of education, you know that our inner clock is set to the turning of the seasons where in late May and early June, while farmers plant new crops with hope in the harvest of the fall, we harvest the produce of an academic year based on the hope that was planted 10 months ago. For me, this time of year represents another one of those weird juxtapositions. The liturgy of yearly reflection, framed by dis ease, offers up an accounting ledger of gain and loss, columns of perceived profit overall, but parenthetical red ink spilling all over my personal ledger. Even with a couple of weeks left in the fiscal year, I have a pretty good idea of the forecast with all things pointing to continued negotiation of ALS, like a flipped coin that never seems to land cleanly on one side or the other.

Key to any professional reflection is assessing your own and others’ performance. I don’t believe I have ever enjoyed evaluation meetings as much as I have in the past week. I find myself hanging on to every question, every comment, every conversation in which we share our hopes and goals and dreams and yes, our disappointments. These meetings, so perfunctory in the past, have now taken on sweetness, morsels of shared appreciation, frustration, collective failure and success. I want to say more but the words are muted, inadequate to the privilege I feel working with these bright, talented, passionate, and even curmudgeonly individuals. We seek a toehold on the cliffside of Higher Education v. 2012, and pushing up and out under craggy overhangs, swinging to spaces where the safety of ropes is memory, jamming fingers into minute cracks to hold ourselves onto this wall by the smallest of digits, we dangle our professional existence in a netherworld where terra firma has turned upside down. I look back on my own accomplishments, my failures, and I look forward at what faces us looming large, comforted by the presence of these brilliant people. There have been tears in these meetings. There have been mirthful laughs. But most of all, unspoken, there have been present, holy manifestations of just how special this time is together; at least it is that way for me.

The logistics of Bruce with ALS mean that each passing day presents more and more difficulty just to enter the professional day in the life. Taking stock over the past 12 months, I have departed from dressing myself to requiring home care just to get on my socks. The act of buttoning a shirt has transitioned from the just possible to sleeves and necks and sometimes the whole placard left for someone else. My perfectly knotted tie, once so smoothly executed, is now a clumsy ritual of reliance on others to turn down my collar and center the knot. Breakfast and lunch and dinner are totally dependent on the culinary skills of my one true love or trusted others. Nothing is more illustrative than driving: A year ago, I plopped into a Honda Hybrid with a cane thrown in the back seat; 10 months ago, I traded the Civic with Ev so I could drive her Subaru (higher off the ground, room for the walker, easier to swing in and out of); 7 months ago, I moved into a Rollx van with hand controls, and 8 days ago—I stopped driving. The academic calendar recalls the logistical progression of dis ease’s greatest accomplishments.

And of course, the preparation for professional engagement leaves me exhausted, anticipating the everyday exhilaration as if I had run a marathon, swum miles, biked up a mountain, hiked into town and back on an empty stomach. In these end of year meetings, I float on a self-manufactured cloud of fatigue, thoroughly relishing the shared time together, scrabbling to stay focused when weariness from pre-game liturgies pushes my eyelids downward, misting my peripheral vision, darkening the walls and ceilings, yet illumined by the presence each colleague brings into the room. I never feel so alive as when I am in communion with others, and the intimacy of colleagues engaging the common purpose of educating professional wannabes whose entire raison d’etre is to point a life path for those struggling to find their way, is a sweetness that frames the exhaustion in dappled light like the shade of a tree interrupted by summer sun.

This week, one of my favorite people in the whole world brought his district’s administrative team to our campus for a day of K-12 reflection. He asked me if I would say a few words of welcome—something along the lines of current educational policy or trends reflecting the needs of K-12 and higher ed. I worried that welcome like a loose tooth, and nothing seemed even remotely right. And why should it? The epiphany of dis ease floods my eyesight with the realization that ALS doesn’t allow you to be so flippant as to toss off a few ideas about policy. Instead, I spoke from the naked core of what I know best—failure. I said:

One of the gifts of ALS is recognition. As an educator, and a pretty good one I might add, I recognize great teaching when I see it, and ALS is a great, if unyielding teacher. And what have I learned? The cornerstone of my new knowledge is to accept failure as inevitable. I write about this a lot, because such recognition blesses and curses, confuses and clarifies, fragments yet unifies. You can build faith in failure.

Is it any wonder that I want to keep working? Against the easily documented losses of ALS come the professional accomplishments of so many around me, an opportunity to build a spiritual faith where failure is only the next test and the next. I ended my welcome with this:

Today, as you discuss your successes and failures of the past year, challenge yourself that every child in your sphere will be deeply known, loved, fostered, and cared for by someone in your school. Challenge your systems to face failure in a way that will build strength and capacity so that the next failure and the next will be nothing but a pathway to success. Yes, intervene, improve, tutor, school, teach syllables and numbers and sounds and knowledge and the civil responsibility that defines the difference between the educated and the ignorant. But in that time, do not lose sight of the fact that we are, each one of us, failing; and we have been given a great gift in this insight—the choice to energize our collective failures into the emergence of a beautiful human child educated to be persistent, resilient, squeezing that failure, until it yields, and in the yielding, learning success.

It is summer in the city. “Hot times!” My academic clock insists upon reflecting on a professional life that somehow, squeezed out another year engaged in what I love, that somehow my world of physical breakdown continued to intersect with a world in which failure needs translation for its gifts. The sounds of summer in my city tell me to let the sunshine pour down, that just enough will get through my personal shades, and that faith is in the blessings of failure and life and spring planting and autumn harvests. On the local farms, lettuce and leaves and strawberries are just now beginning to show themselves to the possibilities and threats of the season to come.

And I marvel. I just marvel.