I’m the head honcho of Martha, Bear and Teddy, but what that actually means in the grand scheme is less than negligible. I was talking to a friend on the phone last night trying to explain that since I retired, I know a LOT less than I did when I was “holding up the sky” and teaching everyone in the world how to write and communicate in a businesslike fashion. Both Socrates and Lao Tzu said (in their later years?) that knowing that you don’t know is 1) wisdom 2) the Tao. Or something… I was trying to explain to my friend that when we’re working our world depends on our expertise, and we have to KNOW what we’re spending 8+ hours a day doing, thinking, talking about.

The competence imperative is removed from our lives when we’re not holding up the sky any more. It’s really difficult to change gears or even KNOW we need to change gears; a lot of people don’t. I did, but godnose how I managed that.

I remember in my 30s getting together with another teacher (in her 30s) and marching to the boss’ (in her late 40s) office with a solution to the problem of students being unhappy in the level in which they had been placed at our language school. The students believed they’d been put in a low (in their opinion) level so that the school could make more money by making the students take more time to be ready to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). My colleague said the students should be placed in groups that they wouldn’t recognize as levels, “Blue birds, robins, what not,” she said, “instead of numbers like 102, 103, 104.” Students especially hated 104 — intermediate. It WAS hard to progress past that.

The boss agreed that a lot of students came to her wanting to be placed in a higher level, but that our testing was accurate and placement was almost always correct. If it wasn’t, students were given a chance to change levels. My contention was that there were students who would learn if they were slightly misplaced and had to reach. It got to be a pretty loud argument and you are probably reading this thinking, “Who CARES????”

As I got older I became a lot less polemical. The last episode like this I remember was between me (50 something) and some young teachers (30 something) over my syllabus. My syllabus evolved into this horrible thing, four pages long and covering every possible nightmare I’d confronted in my years teaching. I’d learned that a syllabus is a legal document and also a teaching tool. The more I spelled out about how a student could succeed (or fail) in my class, the more useful it would be for me and them. Students got it and liked it. It usually went in the front of their notebooks and they used it to gain direction in the classes I taught. But my 30 something colleagues complained that it didn’t “reflect the temper of the times” and was “snarky” and not “supportive.”

I didn’t even know what “snarky” meant, but I knew where I was in this business of holding up the sky. I explained WHY my syllabus was like it was and asked them to send me a sample ideal syllabus. Their response was how, after I had taught so long, didn’t I KNOW what a syllabus “should” be?

They were picking a fight, and I wasn’t having it. Aside from certain information a syllabus MUST contain, I didn’t think my syllabus was their business, but they were at the “We KNOW things” stage of their career, and I was at the “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate,” stage of my career.

When my mom died, an older friend described life as a “wave.” “Now you’re on the crest of the wave,” she said. I’ve thought about that often, even to the point of imagining waves and how strange it must be for the wave, who’s spent all its life out there in the ocean, to find itself suddenly on the alien world of the shore, all shallow and stuff, where water is no longer the WHOLE WORLD but, rather, sand, rocks, and — ewww — dryness. “Wow,” thinks the wave, “I don’t know ANYTHING about this.”

It has to be like this. In our middle years, the “productive years,” we’re doing the hard work of raising kids, earning a living and all that entails. A certain amount of aggressive certainty is absolutely necessary and part of human progress. BUT life’s REAL luxury, the earned reward of survival, might be not having to know everything any more. ❤


29 thoughts on “Waves…

  1. I hope you now know what “snarky” means. Your blog seems to strike a great balance between “snarky” and “sweet”. Speaking strictly for me, these are two qualities that deserve to be enmeshed.

      • Merriam-Webster says “sarcastic, impertinent, or irreverent”. They do indicate an older definition of “crotchety or snappish”. Maliciousness in’t in their definition, nor implied by me. I meant irreverent. You seem to be appropriately reverent about the Big Empty, your garden, your relationship with Bear and Teddy, and appropriately irreverent about some other issues which deserve irreverence. Forgive me if I misinterpret you.

        • I should have explained that I asked them what “snarky” meant. They said my syllabus was snide and sounded like I didn’t want my students to succeed. They were from the “ribbon for participation” generation and I’m obviously not, so that was part of the problem. Their comments were pretty hard to take since I loved teaching and sincerely wanted my students to succeed.

  2. I do love some bodysurfing, too. Waves, indeed. I recall one of my teachers in residency mentioning that docs in their first year of practice were the most dangerous. Thinking they know everything, without the humbling experience to recognize the impossibility of that task. Ahh, the arrogance of youth!

  3. I’m much more content now, watching the waves and riding them out. Not that I don’t sometimes fight them – I think you need to know when it’s still important to row harder and when it’s ok to take a break and let the water carry you. Nice analogy…I feel much calmer now about going back to work on Tuesday.

  4. I’m happy to be relieved of my “Atlas” duties. Sometimes it is a pleasure to be responsible for nothing more than unloading the dishwasher and making sure we have milk in the refrigerator!
    Retirement has been a joy and the work that I’ve undertaken is on my terms… hope you are enjoying the feel of the waves lapping at your feet!

  5. I absolutely love your conclusion. Riding the wave of don’t need to know. Really well said, Martha. Don’t need to know and don’t need to prove anymore. Such a relief to look at it like that. ❤️

  6. I like your ending, too. There comes a time when we feel washed out of “the things we knew” — or the world we once understood — and then just to relax about it and not have to make people see the thing.
    I’ve been thinking that way myself since I was involved in a conversation with acquaintances who complained about anti-white racism. “A black man is killed by police and everybody gets up in arms and protests. But how many times does this same thing happen to a white guy and no one says anything?”
    I’m inclined to jump up and down and recite stats galore, to make them see the facts, but I find I need to just calm down and not need to “know better.” A person just ends up preaching to the choir, already in agreement, while the others aren’t listening and we’ve gotten all worked up for nothing. Oh, to have the grace to let it go. 😉

    • That very argument is what led me to write the most recent post about racism. And I’ve realized that when I write a post like that, I don’t care if anyone agrees or not. It’s about thinking seriously about it for myself and writing is my way of doing that. But you know, it really does come down to “Let those with ears, hear.” “The grace to let it go” is so very beautiful.

  7. My mom, aged 79, just retired. She’s having a little trouble with the lack of holding up the sky . That gave her a great sense of purpose. Enjoyed your thoughts . I’m 56 and no longer want to fight .

    • It’s not easy to let go. I was so ready but it was a year or more before I succeeded. Holding up the sky was a habit. ❤ I wish your mom the best. It's really nice to let go.

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