Saturday, September 29, 2012

Somehow, I've Always Known This Existed

Honest work is much better than a mansion. ~Tolstoy

In Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece Anna Karenina there is a character named Nikolai Dmitrievich Levin who represents the great Russian author himself. He's a man of patrician background who prefers the life of the peasant. In what is one of my favorite exchanges, his more intellectually inclined younger half-brother Sergey Ivanovitch asks him, "Altogether, you're satisfied with your day?"

To which Levin replies, "Quite satisfied. We cut a whole meadow. And such a splendid old man I made friends with there! You can't fancy how delightful he was!"

Sergey then goes on about the essential philosophical differences between the two of them, accusing Levin of being "too primsautiere in nature," and so on.

"Levin listened to his brother and did not understand a single word, and did not want to understand. He was only afraid his brother might ask him some question which would make it evident he had not heard."

I've been thinking about Levin a lot lately.

The advent of our new 5's program this year means that for the first time in a long while, I'm working a new schedule, one of my own choosing. My days are full. I leave home at 7 a.m. and return around 5 p.m., with a one hour break after the morning classes, during which I must shovel down some lunch and prepare for the afternoon class. I already teach many of the kids at Woodland Park for 3 full years before packing them off to kindergarten, and I'm absolutely in love with the idea of extending that. I'm excited about working with these older children, whose developmental competencies will allow us to experiment with things for which younger children aren't yet ready, to bring a little of what I think ought to be part of a kindergarten curriculum to the kids. But perhaps most of all, I can't wait to discover what kind of community these older children will create together. I've seen inklings of it this week and it makes me almost giddy.

I've been writing about how this has been playing out for the past couple weeks and will continue to do so in the future, but today I'm thinking less about all of this, and more about the "work": what it means to me, the guy who is moving from what many would consider an idyllic 5 hour work-day with lots of personal freedom to one that is, essentially, 10 hours non-stop. 

For the past decade of teaching the Pre-3 and 3-5's classes, I've had the luxury of knocking off around noon most days, taking a quiet lunch, then coasting into an afternoon of picking up my child after school, email, dog walking, errands, tidying up, and cooking dinner. As our daughter has entered her teenage years, however, and with our move away from the obligations of a large house with a large yard into a compact in-city apartment 18 months ago, this "second shift" of my day had grown increasingly flabby, with hours of time opening up to me every afternoon, and despite plans for things like, say, writing a book, re-applying myself to my art, or trying to "blow up" this whole Teacher Tom thing, what actually happened was that I found ways to fill up the time with what amounts to nothing: wasting time online, aimlessly tooling around on my bike, or folding laundry (I don't see the point of folded laundry). 

And you know what? Even with all that time on my hands I was still managing to feel tired at the end of the day, or maybe the word I'm looking for is "lethargic," because it isn't as if I was enjoying high quality sleep. I've added a bit of a spare tire these last few years, something every 50-year-old man has earned, of course, but most of it has come from eating without appetite or drinking without revelry. I've been bicycle commuting, which is a wonderful thing, but frankly, I'd even become lackdaisicial about that, opting for increasingly lower gears, avoiding too much sweat or fully expanding my lungs.

I doubt anyone would have called me lazy, exactly, but whether I understood it with my conscious brain or not, that's where I was headed. Even looking back from this short distance into my new life, I see a vaguely dissatisfied, irritable old man at the end of that road. Looking forward from where I am today, I'm happy to report that he's no where in sight.

The happiness of men consists in life. And life is labor. ~Tolstoy

Last year, a small group of us cooked up the idea of a transitional kindergarten, a cooperative 5's program that would meet in the afternoons and that I would teach. It wasn't until we were fully enrolled last spring that I began to really contemplate what this would mean for my days. As the summer wore on I began to think of not just the mental, but physical expectations of a job like this, one in which I rarely sit, in which I rarely shut up, in which every minute of my waking days would be full because I wasn't about to give up on cooking those dinners or walking those dogs or keeping the place presentable.

It intimidated me at times, of course, the abstraction of what this meant: there was, and still is, a lot of unknown in there. I'd need to prepare. For one thing, I'd want to be in better physical shape. I might fail, but damn it, it wasn't going to be because my body broke down. I didn't realize it at the time, but one of the first things I did toward preparing myself was to set my bike into one of its most challenging gear ratios from which I've not shifted since, tackling hill and vale like I once did on the one-speeds I rode as a boy. Seattle is set on a very hilly terrain, and there are still a few places I can't go, but the legs and lungs are getting there. I've cut my morning commute time by nearly a third, which is a big deal given that it was only about 20 minutes before. The other evening, after enjoying myself at Fremont's Octoberfest in September, I made it home in 10 minutes! I'm beginning to feel quite powerful physically.

(I'm on the verge of going all-in with a single speed bike. I want a really pretty one.)

The most important person is the one you are with in this moment. ~Tolstoy

Nevertheless, I expected to feel worn down these first few weeks because I could think of no other way to mentally condition myself other than simply working my way "into shape." Shockingly, that's not been the case. As I read to the 5's yesterday from Solomon The Rusty Nail by the Tolstoy of picture books William Steig, I came to the part where Solomon, burning in a fire in the form of a rusty nail, feels "alive" and "central." I felt a flash of recognition: that's exactly how I've been feeling since the beginning of the school year. Each day has felt like powering through my daily commute, legs churning, mind focused on right now (you know, because of trying to avoid being knocked over by cars), lungs filling fully, sweat warming my shirt.

The mind-body connection has never been more clear to me. I've found myself attacking each day like a boy attacks a long steep hill on his single-speed Schwinn, legs pumping to build up momentum, standing aggressively on the pedals, not playing mental games about down-shifting or stopping for a breather, but just moving forward with everything he's got, unconcerned about leaving anything in the tank. It doesn't matter if I'm tired or not tired. It doesn't matter if I'm sick or not sick. It doesn't matter if things are hard or easy. It only matters that I leap in and do the wonderful work I'm blessed to get to do.

I've spent my days this month, my whole days, in what feels like a full-on, muscular endeavor, alive and central, surrounded by these children who I love, doing the things that we love together, not thinking as much as staying focused, reacting rather than planning. I feel like I'm just playing as hard as I can, clearing a whole meadow, and it's as exhilarating as bombing down a long hill and hitting all green lights.

I'm hungry all the time now. I sleep like a rock. There is nothing better than eating with appetite and sleeping in the peace of having worked very hard in the company of the most important people.

To paraphrase another William Steig book, this time The Zabajaba Jungle, somehow, I've always known this exited.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

i LOVE the energy in your words here. Curious about what "transitional K" is - is this for kids who miss the age cutoff for schools? Or for kids who go to K in the morning then your program in the afternoon?

Our daughter is only 3, and has a mid-Sept birthday so won't be eligible for K for a few more years, so I'm curious about what her options are.