On the Costs of Education

Last Thursday, I finally enrolled into the last thesis writing class required for the completion of my Masters degree. The class is a mere formality—something I need to sign up for if I’m to defend my thesis this coming semester. As a formality, it’s stunningly expensive: among the line items is Px,xxx in fees for the use of a library I have no intention of visiting since it almost never has the titles I’m looking for anyway. (I survived much of my Masters degree coursework using books I acquired during the years I spent in Singapore.)

Why the fee came as a shock is I’m accustomed to being educated for free. I was a scholar from high school all the way up to graduate school, so it came as a bit of a nasty surprise when I found that I had to pay Pxx,xxx close to the end of my extended education for something that, ironically enough, required the least amount of resources from the school (to wit: the use of the room where I intend to defend my thesis in January).

While I’m sure all the fees are justifiable from an accounting perspective (a perspective I learned from my first college degree), they’re rather opaque from a philosophical perspective (a perspective that sprang from a civilization that relied heavily on slave labor so that “free” men could think). In other words, philosophers—a venerably parasitic lot—tend to be appalled by the mere notion of having to pay in order to learn. (All of which simply goes to show that if philosopher kings are rarities, philosopher managers are downright absurdities.)

My inner parasite’s righteous indignation aside, at least the unwelcome expense has this unexpected benefit: given how much I’ll have to pay if I have to do it again, there’s a steely determination on my end to finally finish things this semester.

At the very least, I hope that the room for my thesis defense is air-conditioned, wood-paneled, red-carpeted and lift-accessible. That way, I’ll be sure to get my money’s worth. Kind of.


On the Wisdom of Practice

At yoga class yesterday, I was reminded (all over again) of how far I still have to go—and how much I’ve misunderstood (and continue to misunderstand) this gentle and joyous practice.


Little Grasshopper Lesson No. 1: Listen to your pain.

Editha: (Serene.) “Arrange your legs in Baddha Konasana position, then lie down and stay there for fifteen minutes. Your only task will be to listen to the tension in your body. Tell me afterwards what you hear.”

(Fifteen minutes later.)

Editha: (Still serene.) “So, what did you hear?”

Eileen: (Puzzled.) “Um, I kept waiting for the pain in my legs to come, but it never did. What actually hurt, strangely enough, was my left arm and my left shoulder blade.”

Editha: (Smiling.) “Exactly. Because you’re in Baddha Konasana, your mind assumes that the pain will come from your legs. It’s the logical inference. But if you actually listen to your body, the pain comes from somewhere else.”

Eileen: (Frowning.) “It’s my shoulder that hurts. I’m doing something wrong in my downward dog, aren’t I?”

Editha:  (Grinning.) “Exactly. And you would have realized that much earlier if you’d listened to your body instead of your mind.”

Eileen: Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

Editha: (Cheerful.) Now let me show you what you’ve been doing wrong . . .


Little Grasshopper Lesson No. 2: Let your spirit dance.

Abbey: “I shouldn’t be bending my knees in Prasarita Padottanasana right? It’s not the ideal!”

Editha: “Ideals, ideals! Never mind ideals! Yoga is about letting your spirit dance. If you’re not letting your spirit dance, how can you practice yoga every day? Why would you even want to practice yoga every day?


Little Grasshopper Lesson No. 3: Allow yourself to fall.

Art: “I need to do my headstand against the wall, because sometimes I feel like I’m about to fall.”

Editha: “Then allow yourself to fall.”


Art: “And . . .?”

Editha: “And nothing. You have to get comfortable with falling.”


Final score: Editha—3; Little grasshoppers—0.


On the Sufficiency of Now

Over lunch yesterday, a woman asked me what my “plans” were—the word “plans” articulated in such a way that the capitalized first letter was clearly present.

After giving a fairly succinct and coherent response in a little under three minutes, she replied by saying: “Yes, that’s lovely, but what are your plans?”

The obvious breakdown in communication made me pause. It can be disorienting to be asked the same question after giving what one feels to be a straightforward answer. After a moment, I realized where the confusion lay: I’d answered a question about my future plans with a statement describing my already present conditions. To say it another way, I hadn’t really said anything about achieving something new or pursuing something different.

At which point, I realized something else: I’m not particularly interested in achieving anything new or pursuing anything different because I am, quite frankly, very happy where I am and how I am (despite the where and the how being rather nebulous states of affairs). I get to write, I get to practice yoga, I’m surrounded (almost all the time) by people I’m terribly fond of, and I get to make a difference in the world in my own way. I highly doubt that there’ll be any Pulitzer, Booker or Nobel prizes coming in the future (something that would have broken my striving childhood heart), but—surprise of all surprises—I really don’t care.

I can’t emphasize enough what an unexpected state of affairs this is, because I’ve spent quite a significant amount of my life agonizing about, well, making something significant of my life. (And I was embarrassingly earnest enough about the search to actually leave the corporate world and study philosophy.)

These days though, the summit of my ambition is to be able to keep waking up and enjoying a leisurely cup of Lavazza Cremoso Espresso coffee. In the face of it (and countless other tiny pleasures), it gets very hard to be bothered by such things as Accomplishment and Meaning and Purpose and Transcendence.

Which is not to say that these things aren’t important, but sometimes (maybe even most times) all the forests that we need are already in the trees. And sometimes, when we’re really, really masterful, even just a leaf will do.

On the Unexpectedness of Grace

So for the last few weeks, I’ve been waking up and going to sleep in a state of irrepressible good cheer.

The experience is utterly foreign to me (little Eeyore Eileen hiding behind a Wednesday Addams façade), so I oscillate between unabashed gratitude and perplexed skepticism.

Part of me is just waiting for the universe to hand the bill.

It’s not even that things are all that different from how they were just a month ago. The same causes for worry are there, as are the same sources of annoyance, inconvenience and irritation. But the usual negativity seems so remote: the edge of anger dulled, the sting of sadness blunted, and everywhere the soothing blanket of an alien serenity.

I’m not complaining—far from it. There’s just the customary anxiety at the thought of losing an unexpected grace (how quickly appreciation turns into attachment!). So I try to find the source of it, all the while hoping that the source is me.

Part of it likely is. All the fractures and fissures of the last several months haven’t gone away, but finding myself alive (alive!) and surprisingly well after every single break has nurtured a (secret) confidence that there is such a thing as a resilient self—that we not only go on, but that we go on growing stronger even when all we’re present to is our mute, incessant appeal for relief. So much tenacity (undreamt of, unhoped for)—and so much strength in such timidly beating hearts!

And isn’t this the pedestrian miracle of life? When the sight of a leaf or the sound of a breeze can trigger that most diaphanous of epiphanies: that existence is superfluous, unnecessary and even pointless, but precisely for all those reasons, is the most primordial of gifts. For isn’t that the nature of a gift? That it is given in the absence of need and reason.

So the struggle of life simply boils down to this: to grow—to grow a heart wide enough, deep enough, massive enough to take the gift.

(And yes, I still do find myself waiting for that bill. The waiting—and the awareness of the waiting—is part of growing too.)

On the Pleasures of Shaffer (Part 3)

by Nancy Shaffer

This making of a whole self takes
such a very long time: pieces are not
sequential nor our supplies. We work here,
then there, hold up tattered fabric to the light.
Sew past dark, intent. Use all our thread.

Sleeves may come before length,
buttons, before a rounded neck.
We sew at what most needs us,
and as it asks, sew again.

The self is not one thing, once made,
unaltered. Not midnight task alone, not
after other work. It’s everything we come
upon, make ours: all this fitting of
what-once-was and has-become.

On the Pleasures of Shaffer (Part 2)

by Nancy Shaffer

Because we spill not only milk
Knocking it over with an elbow
When we reach to wipe a small face
But also spill seed on soil we thought was fertile but isn’t,
And also spill whole lives, and only later see in fading light
How much is gone and we hadn’t intended it
Because we tear not only cloth
Thinking to find a true edge and instead making only a hole
But also tear friendships when we grow
And whole mountainsides because we are so many
And we want to live right where black oaks lived,
Once very quietly and still
Because we forget not only what we are doing in the kitchen
And have to go back to the room we were in before,
Remember why it was we left
But also forget entire lexicons of joy
And how we lost ourselves for hours
Yet all that time were clearly found and held
And also forget the hungry not at our table
Because we weep not only at jade plants caught in freeze
And precious papers left in rain
But also at legs that no longer walk
Or never did, although from the outside they look like most others
And also weep at words said once as though
They might be rearranged but which
Once loose, refuse to return and we are helpless
Because we are imperfect and love so
Deeply we will never have enough days,
We need the gift of starting over, beginning
Again: just this constant good, this
Saving hope.

On the Pleasures of Shaffer (Part 1)

by Nancy Shaffer

When you quarrel with God
really you are quarreling with
those who have come after God.
It is not God who taught you only
a certain prayer or said reward
lies in only one direction. It is not
God who said “reward” rather than
“embracing love” which is everywhere.
Not God who taught you to hate
God, shun God. Those like you–
two-legged and mortal–did this: those
also hurt, in turn, by others before them.

You could leave off this quarreling:
just begin again, with just yourself
and God. You can choose a different
name for the Holy; stop cringing when
I say mine. Each is only a word for what
can’t be said, the barest beginning,
a glimpse. The rest you may do in private.

But see: what you do there in private,
shows: what you come back with is written
all over you. It doesn’t matter
what the particular word is. Only
that you return there often, opening
yourself to everything that makes it.

Those who taught you what to pray and
how to pray were wrong, if what they
taught you, you hate.

You can begin again.