Friday, March 11, 2016

Stepping in the same sea (oceans apart)

Five years ago today I sat on a beach near Carmel, California, sharing a picnic lunch with my California Literature class and watching the waves. We weren't the only ones keeping watch: news had been trickling in all morning about the Fukushima tsunami and fears that a similar wave would hit the Pacific coast.

We'd been gallivanting around San Francisco, Monterey, Salinas, and Carmel all week, learning about California literature at places important to California's writers. We'd spent the morning at Robinson Jeffers's house in Carmel and planned to picnic at Point Lobos, but tsunami warnings closed that park so we perched on a dune at another beach and carefully watched the crashing waves.

This was the last day of our week-long sojourn, which was educational and exhausting and exhilarating all at once. All morning we'd been fielding calls from concerned friends and family; my colleague who helped chaperon the trip has relatives in Japan, so our relaxing picnic was accompanied by an undercurrent of distress. With Walt Whitman we were "Facing West from California's Shores," looking toward "the house of maternity, the land of migrations" as the beginning and end of all our striving, "the circle almost circled."

We felt our closeness to the land across the sea, the same Pacific waters lapping at our feet carrying death and devastation to Japan, but of course we also felt our distance. We were safe, picnicking quietly high above the waves, while others just across the way were being swept to oblivion.

All that week we'd been, like Whitman, "Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound" and finding things we hadn't known we were searching for. Three of those students later returned to California for work or play and one worked for a while near Carmel and considers it her second home. I look back to that trip as my most rewarding teaching moment and I wonder whether I'll ever again pull off anything close to the learning experiences we found at Jack London's ranch or City Lights Books or Muir Woods or Hawk Tower.

Hawk Tower: built by hand by Robinson Jeffers, a poet who viewed building with stone and building with words as springing from the same impulse--the desire to create something that outlasts our meager existence:
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun
Die blind, his heart blackening:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey of peace in old poems.

We had our time in the sun; we enjoyed our sandwiches and poetry by the Pacific, grateful for the presence of peace but knowing that no ocean can completely separate us from the suffering of others. Today we remember the suffering and pray that they find peace.

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