Sunday, January 24, 2016

Knowing the will of heaven

I mentioned that two of my forthcoming classes are reboots of classes I've taught before - "Exploring Religious Ethics," most recently taught in Spring 2013, and "Lived Religion in New York, in Fall 2011. These might not seem like a long time ago, but for someone with a memory as sieve-like as me, a very long time.

I can say that with confidence because - thank goodness! - I'm an assiduous diarist. (I took it up in earnest at the start of the new millennium, even before this blog entered and enriched the mix in 2006.) I've been going back through the quite detailed accounts I jotted down of each session of those classes - what we discussed, what worked, what didn't, interesting and surprising contributions various students made, notes to self for what to do differently next time - as if discovering a lost treasure: I'd forgotten almost all of it! I flip back and forth between shame and mortification that I've forgotten not only our discussions but many of the students who were part of them on the one hand, and relief and gratitude to my diarist self for recording as much as he did on the other. (As I read them I'm also aware that most of what happened in last semester's classes is doomed for oblivion, as the classes' being scheduled back-to-back left me no time to record and process what happened in each class.)

Happily, even brief descriptions bring back a lot: the memories are fuzzy but they're there, if triggered. Memory is all about triggers, of course, as I recall learning from Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting. (I think: wasn't that the book where a woman, who's just lost her husband, tries to recollect all the summer holiday trips they went on and isn't able, succeeding finally in completing the list only once she's given up and lives on, new experiences triggering recollections of the forgotten memories?)

I just had what some might see as a big birthday (in Roman numerals, I'm L size now), and it triggered two interesting memories which I can't recall the last time I entertained. Both are from when I was a teenager.

The first was someone else's fiftieth birthday - my father's. We had a big party for him - perhaps a surprise - but what I remember is the card of invitation which I designed. A grid of little boxes perhaps sixteen or twenty, each with a line drawing and a name or description, and the question: What do these things have in common? The things were stuff like teflon and the zipper and some kind of radiation, and people like Carl Sagan, Sofia Loren, Brigitte Bardot - and my father. What they all had in common, of course, was that they were all fifty years old that year! I have no seventeen year old child to do that for me, but the research would be a lot easier today - see what good company I have!

The second memory occurred to me as I was gloating over how I'd bypassed the anxiety of approaching fifty by having the birthday a year early, if unplanned. (That it was fifty I had, by Chinese reckoning, attained was embedded in a reference to Confucius.) Even without the Chinese counting, it's clear that I've just completed my fiftieth year. Anyway, it came to me that I tried to avoid another milestone once, which sounds a lot like fifty: fifteen! In my "best little boy in the world" way I was wary of turning fifteen, which I had heard was the year when children became rebellious and rude. I assured my parents (and myself) I was going to skip it, go right from fourteen to sixteen! 

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