Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Serves Me Right

This is a total side track from my travel entries. I started it and now I am impelled to finish it. Feel free to go back to your web surfing at any time you find your attention wandering...

Around 1984 I was living in a small town, Lacoste, in the south of France. I was romantically involved with the owner of one of two bars in the village, the bar that catered to the night crowd, the wild bar where I once saw a full-on cinematic brawl complete with fighters parting for the passing of a full-term pregnant woman making her way to the door, actual glass bottles shattered on actual human skulls, chairs across backs, the whistling arrival of a phalanx of gendarmarie in their little blue hats straight out of Casablanca, the paddy wagon doing its loading, the unique reflective quiet of a riot's aftermath. 

It was a local thing; no one glanced my way or touched me. The bar owner was a rustic gal, ill-mannered and raucous, cousins in jail and siblings dead by overdose. Anyhoo, this romance meant a lot of free drinking and a lot of drunken, trumped-up drama, a lot of time to perfect my pinball skills (to the detriment of any other skill that might have been perhaps remunerative long term).

Days in my twenties passed as if in a waiting room - waiting for a verdict of some kind as what exactly it was I was meant to do in this life.

There were two songs of that era that pushed me up and pushed me down, like an amphetamine, like a narcotic, like old friends and old enemies. One was a German song, 99 Luftballons, some kind of Cold War protest song by Nena. I wouldn’t have known since it was in German (it did have some kind of resurgence later in English). My other anthem was U2’s New Year’s Day. Over and over. With beer. With coffee. With Pastis.

 I…I will begin again.

The promise of endless new beginnings is also the option to stuff things up to infinity.

I…I will begin again.

Slightly over one year ago, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, signing on to what I believed destiny had delivered to my digital doorstep. My ideal job. Meaningful, ethical, dare I say it? Noble work. It came with such coincidence, such serendipity. It came so perfectly tailored to my financial needs, my geographical desires, my moral requirements. Work with impoverished children. Work with gifted children. Work towards the  betterment of a nation scarred by my own. 

The kids were shipped straight from heaven. My co-workers and the director? Not so much.

I was off balance, nearly from the outset. I was thrown into the side road ditch by the ambition and cocksureness of youth, by a director not attuned to running a small hands-on program, by my own plan of being flexible and low-key. I spent hours each day wondering, Can this be a nightmare? Is this a strange, unbelievable twist in a sick game in which I am trapped?

I have NEVER personally experienced such joy and misery simultaneously. They say the Lord works in mysterious ways. Considering, it does almost seem impossible that a random universe would contain these polar opposites, these abominable meaningless petty wars and these fabulous orange sunrises over dewy meadows. It is almost as if God's Plan is designed to simply shatter us- leave our hearts and minds in a shamble.

Designed to force us towards...? Such a cruel game.

I was fired in March. Ugly stuff. Blackmailed not to fight for my job in order to gain an important supervisory recommendation. Faced with a choice, my knees buckled. Instead of angrily turning and walking out, I scraped the floor for a recommendation. I was simply afraid I might not get another job.

I lost my dream job. I lost face.

Once a mother at a dinner party, discovering I was an English teacher, accosted me with: Why do kids have to always read such SAD books in class?  A wealthy woman, married to a successful local bigwig. I blah blah blah'd about learning more from suffering than happiness, how it is only in disturbance and turmoil that suspense is generated.

A year later, her husband developed a cancerous tumor in his spine; he was dead within six weeks.

A truer answer would have simply been:  I don't know. Many drawn to work on the police force are simply drawn to power- telling people what to do while armed with a loaded Beretta. Perhaps those drawn to teaching English are drawn to comprehending sadness. I mean the English teachers I love. I mean myself.

One of the great outcomes of this terribly happy/sad chapter in my life, this episode of beautiful happiness/brutal sadness, gain/loss, miracle/catastrophe, was simply acceptance- of moving (or attempting to move) beyond good and bad,  of happy  and sad, into the land of is. Of living in the moment without expectations or judgement.

To contain, to comprehend, the extremes of my happiness and my sorrow would have shredded my soul, would have rent my mind in two, would have been impossible. Thus I became less a participant, more of a witness. Was this an abdication of my humanity? Was it unfeeling? I am not sure. I do feel remorse that I did not stand up to my director and to my young colleagues. That I was not more cunning and active rather than passive, trying to weather the storm by battening the hatches. Still, the impossibility of understanding carried its own gifts. It moved me to love and live and work hard with my beautiful Cambodian students up until the last second, when they got on the buses and their small perfect faces disappeared into the dusty distance. Rather than dwell on our impending parting, on the hopelessness of my position, I became more like the kids themselves, enjoying the exact second our bodies and breaths occurred.

Oddly, I took my next job based on professional career advice, choosing this school in Indonesia because a famous director was at its helm, along with a slew of other highly regarded administrators. I passed over another job at a smaller, less prestigious job in Dhaka my heart was leaning towards. The moment I signed my contract, I had a sinking feeling. I had once again ignored something, though I cannot tell you what that something was.

I signed in March. In May and June all the administrators and the director I had signed to work with were fired in one of the most astonishingly bloody coups ever in the international school circuit. Without exaggeration, individuals among the most highly regarded in the entire industry were in fear of their freedom, advised by the embassy to pack up, keep their mouths closed, and flee the country. It is the talk of our closed town and has been for months.

So now I go to school, putting on my company tag, one of the most powerful and troubling multinational companies in the world, for a board who has quite clearly demonstrated a ruthless lack of integrity and empathy, not to mention due process or legality.

Yet here I am. It is. My ninth graders discussing the ethics of political asylum are there before me- my task at hand. My energy is given wholly to their spark, to uplifting their self confidence and challenging their thinking. The futility of the endeavor is not pertinent, the impending darkness does not diminish the focus, the diminutive girl in rags, begging on the street corner a 1000 yards from my air-conditioned-filled-with-the-privileged-offspring-of-fierce-tiger-moms-bent-on-their-promotion, does not spiral into paralytic despair. Only is.  There only remains what I choose to do right now.

Someone once said to me, God only gives you what you can handle.  Which is bullshit. Poster worthy pablum. Apparently that dinner party woman's husband couldn't "handle" his cancer and died. Yet there is something in the enormity of it- of the extreme nature of the challenge there for us to tap into any time we care to look into the abyss and try to stay upright and uprighteous.

If this were all a strange digital reality game designed to teach the author of this blog how to persevere, how to get out of bed and get dressed and go to work instead of putting  a shotgun into his mouth, I would have to say it is working, still. You could say it serves me...right

If you have stuck through, read this far, I suppose I owe you some sort of acknowledgment. Or is there the possibility of such a thing as debt? Right and wrong, surely. Fair? Serves me right. Serves you right. As Will Munny would say, Deserves got nothing to do with it....


  1. I can't tell you how many times I've been told to ignore the immoralities of others for my own good -- or because of some unspoken futility in the resistance of official insolence. Such attitudes have strengthened my convictions in that regard, but I am often left in doubt. At what point will I put my perception of morality aside for the sake of my own preservation? What are the relative values of my own life and success versus my philosophical ideals?

  2. I read this just before heading out to Criehaven to catch some bugs. Lobsters don't have nearly as many feelings as we do, friend. It's a good place "to be" for a moment here and there. (Shakespeare, wink)

    1. Yes indeed it is- especially when we connect with students who take time to teach us how to repair traps out in their grandpa's work shop on a summer's afternoon.

  3. Dear Peter;
    I have read both your Tokyo/Kyoto entry and "Serves Me Right" several times now. The Japanese trip is a simple joy to read about and the photos even better. The "MouthWash" image - spectacular.
    But it is the "Serves Me Right" piece which keeps me going back to check certain phrases and words - wondering exactly what he means. What it is WE mean? Why the account of the Lacoste brawl before what follows? - to set a general tone of mayhem, meaningless, and endless conflict and sorrow - perhaps the only true picture of our tenure here on earth?
    At any rate, I admire the gutsy-ness of the piece. ((Wish it too included photos.)) A tenative nod toward the Truth of Suffering. The shot-gun admission of how close to the edge most of us are - as we cycle through coup d'etats and back-stabbing dramas. And then, in the end, the much smaller (still hopeful) voice trying to hang on to some childhood memory of a reasonable world - while sensing (switch to me now - NOT you) all the while that the game is rigged. The fix is in. That the forces of the market are non-negotiable in the extreme. That our tiny gigs of crafting something breathtakingly beautiful, or, helping kids in desperate need of a larger world, will be crushed. Crushed. Beneath waves of laughter and forgetting.
    And so if and when it comes to that what will we do? Could we in fact still get out of bed in the morning - or just reach for one last sip of coffee and the shot-gun? Don't know. I am still taking my meds and trying to figure that out.

    You are a good writer by the way. And, I was a good painter. But that does not matter, does it? You are (I am guessing) relegated to practicing your craft on a blog that no one reads - and I to planting vegetables and slaughtering chickens to feed myself. The world pours more gasoline into its tank and heads off for another day.

    But. But can we come to live with that? That IT? Can we come to eat what we are served? Might serve us just right.

    Robert Van Vranken
    Peacham, Vermont USA
    ps; here is a stab at entering a world that I sense sometimes actually exists but I miss amidst all this rushing and verbiage.



    1. How can you call yourself no one? Maybe because I have always muddled on in obscurity (one part fear, add three cups of laziness), I certainly don't feel 'relegated'. You were more than a good painter;from your film it is evident you continue to be an artist- whatever the hell that is.

  4. Very glad that you are here RVV.
    The film celebrates observation, subtlety and the thundering opposite of the vacuous contemporary current.
    A quiet and intelligent pleasure.
    Thank you.

  5. Peter,
    I really enjoyed this narrative. What is especially good is your searching, questioning and wondering. The concept of ever widening circles is so much better than the platitudes that well-meaning people will give you. I've found that just when I think I understand things, all of a sudden things change -- sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. The wise people of the world are those that area always thinking, wondering and analyzing, synthesizing what they are learning with what they have learned. It is sad when the well-meaning people of the world won't or can't confront the differences between life and some of the platitudes they've been taught.

    I've been learning so much from my three children (14, 18, and 20). They have all the new, fresh thoughts.

    So you believe in a God's plan? When I wrote those words it was simply with curiousity -- no meanness or spite. (I had to say that so that my question could not be interpreted otherwise. You know how it is with the written word.) My thoughts along those lines have changed over the years.

    I saw the web site for the school you teach at. My first thought was "Wow! Peter is so fortunate to work at a school with free thought, free of the greed of private industry. I wish I could be like him." Then I read how the school is apparently in the throes of private industry.

    I agree with RVV - you are a good writer. If I'm in the zone when I write I do pretty well. Other times like this, I feel embarrassed with my lack of style.

    I'll probably revisit your blogs and provide more reactions.