Every Grain Of Sand

“There lived a singer in France of old

By the tideless dolorous midland sea.

In a land of sand and ruin and gold

There shone one woman and none but she.”

–Algernon Swinburne

“I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea

Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.

I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man

Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.”

–Bob Dylan “Every Grain of Sand”

HandOfSand

Once upon a time–it seems like long ages ago–I taught in an independent school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  My job was to introduce wealthy kids to the amazing world of science.  It wasn’t a hard job.  If you lit a candle, the 5th grade boys would “ooh and ahh”, so much so that I would tell them to get out more often and see a show once in a while.

In the back of my classroom, in an oak cabinet with a glass door, I had a row of small bottles with black caps.  Each container had a label.  I think I had about twenty.  The bottles were half the size of a typical test tube.  This was my collection of sand.  Yes, I collected sand.  It makes more sense than a ball of string, rubber bands or empty beer cans from brewers that no longer exist.  I had an advantage that most sand collectors would envy.  Most of my students went to the warm places during the holiday vacations.  Some went skiing in the Alps or Aspen, but it’s hard to collect snow.  I would give my south-bound students a zip-lock bag and ask them to bring me some sand from wherever they went.  I had black sand from Hawaii, pink sand from Bermuda–I had sand from the shores of the Dead Sea and sand from Ipanema Beach in Rio.

Needless to say my sand collection was quite impressive–if you’re impressed by such things.

I think sand is as beautiful and thought-provoking to look upon as a crystal of Rhodochrosite, Halite, Calcite, Serpentine and even Garnet.  Notice I didn’t say Diamond.  I do have some sense of value.

Sand is the stuff of poets and philosophers.

“To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower.  Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.”

–William Blake

These poets and philosophers have a fair grasp of the sublime nature of sand, as a physical substance that you can hold, and as a metaphor for human existence.

The ancient hour-glass is impossible to look at without thinking of the ticking of life’s clock.  How many poets have reminded us of this?  How many images are there of The Grim Reaper who carries a scythe and an hour-glass?  The message is simple, when your final grain of sand had fallen through the narrow glass, the flow of time needs to stop for you.

Hourglass

I am in Florida.  Sand is what keeps this state from sinking into a chasm between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.  [That isn’t quite the entire scientific story, but I have time restraints.]

We saw the small sign indicating a beach.  Turning right off the main road, we arrived at a tiny parking lot.  Even with sunglasses, the sun reflected from the white sand with a glaring intensity, it made you squint, it made your eyes water and it made you want to run naked along the narrow beach while singing an aria from Puccini.

That probably would have resulted in an arrest and a fine that I had no wish to pay.

Some say that if you see one beach, you see them all.  There is some truth in that.  The elements of sand, or pebbles, or  shells, the washing of the waves, the palm trees, the pine trees, or the coconut trees are present along many beaches.  Some, like those in Maine, add a rocky aspect to the mix.  But the beach I stood on just outside Fort Myers, in Florida, was almost pure white.  It made me blink.  It made me reach for my tube of SPF 45.  The sun’s intensity was turning my forearms brown as I stood and watched.

This was the Florida I came to see.  This was just one of the beaches I intended to visit.

And, beaches never fail to set my mind to wandering and wondering and thinking, about life, death, endless motion and the ultimate victory of the sea over the land.

Beach1

Yes, sand is one of the most powerful metaphors for life and change.  I’m hard pressed to think of any natural substance, so common, so varied and so beautiful that speaks to so many souls and poets and painters, about the transitory life we lead.

Every grain of sand, whether its common quartz, feldspar, weathered basalt or bits of sea shells, owns its own particular intricate shape and luster.

It’s just like what’s been said of the individuality of snowflakes.  But, snow is not on my mind these days.

Sand-Grains-quartz-Hyams-Beach-Jervis-Bay-Australia

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My One And Only Superstition

Calendar

I taught science for over thirty years.  I have learned to separate fact from belief, real from unreal and rational thinking from irrational concepts.

There is a world of superstition out there.  It is a danger to society to rely on unproven ideas.  This is why many people burned many women (and men) as witches for many centuries.  I once dated someone who would lick her finger and make a smudgy X on my windshield every time a black cat would cross the road in front of us.  She said it was for good luck.  It was lucky for me that I had a tissue to clean the many X’s from my window, following an afternoon drive.

Really?

Many people won’t walk under a ladder, or will throw salt over their shoulder if they broke a mirror.  Too many people think that something really weird is going to happen on any Friday the 13th.  Great movie, but let’s get real!  It’s just a date on a calendar.

However, some superstitions are interesting and not totally without merit.  I’d whistle every time I passed a cemetery but the problem is, I can’t whistle like I used to do when I was a kid.  So I don’t and nothing has happened to me in the meantime.  It’s not totally surprising since it is common to fear graveyards.  In fact, I rather like them.  I find them interesting places to discover local history and contemplate life.

I believe I made my point.  Superstitions are a little nutty.

Except…

I am ready to admit to my readers that I suffer from the burden of superstition on a daily basis.  It’s just one misplaced belief.  Only one, but it can ruin my whole day.

I put myself in your hands by telling you this.  If any of my former students finds out about this, I could lose my standing in their memory.

You see, I cannot bring myself to mark off a day on the calendar until it’s precisely midnight.

It sounds goofy to you, but I just can’t bring my Sharpie to the wall calendar and proudly make an X until the clock strikes 12:01 am.  But that puts me into an altogether new dilemma.  Which clock should I trust?

I am well aware that Einstein told us that time is relative.  Time, some mystics may say, is an illusion.  What time it is, is a human construct.  If I lived in a deep cave somewhere in France, time would really have no meaning to me.  There would be no diurnal cycle to tell me when the sun rises and sets.  But, I don’t live in a cave in France.  I live at Rainbow Lake, NY…and that makes me need to know what time it is.

WallClock

Do I trust my wall clock in the kitchen?  Of course not.  I have to change it twice a year and I can never be sure exactly where to set the minute hand.  The clock on the oven is a possibility, but we have occasional power failures and we have to reset the timer.  So, that leaves the cable box.

CableClock

Now, I do not know where Time Warner (or Verizon) gets their time feed, but is it exact?  I have no way of knowing.

OvenClock

I had another idea.  Check my iPad time or maybe my iPhone time or even my laptop time, but isn’t that all feed by Verizon?  I didn’t know where to turn.  Then a really odd thought came to me.  Maybe, just maybe, all this time was being fed to me from Amazon?  And, all this time, I didn’t know.  They sell everything, don’t they?

So, I just have to learn to depend on one clock and take it on faith that it is correct…to the second…before I can approach my wall calendar to make my X.

Sometimes, I wear a wrist watch and a belt watch that hangs from a loop on my jeans.  My son, Brian, thinks that is a crazy thing to do.  I think he is thinking of an ancient Zen saying: A man who wears two watches never knows what time it is.  I see it differently.  A man who wears two watches has choices.

But, one choice I don’t have is when the Sharpie traces an X on the calendar.  I have to wait until the time is right.  But now I have a clear graphic that reminds me of how fast time is flying.

That’s another story…for a different time and another day.

GraveClock

 

 

 

A Chain Of Events Has No End

Black-Rose-02

The judge cancelled the restraining order setting into motion a chain of events…

I walked into my classroom on a September morning to meet my class for the first time.  I looked around the room of faces, hands holding pencils, open notebooks and staring eyes.  A chain of events was set into motion…

One in a hundred students would stand out in some inexplicable way.  You saw something in that person.  You stop looking at test scores and begin to see a personality. You listen to them, become friends with them. You let them tell their secrets, their fears and you laugh with them they are happy.  And, you comfort them when they cry.

You cared about them and you thought about their future.  They were yours for only ten months.  Then they moved on.  But you stayed friends with a few.  You followed their life as they became adults.  The best is all you can hope for them.

As the years pass, you think of fewer and fewer.  Your memory begins to fail you when you try to come up with a name or a an anecdote.

I recently received news that one of my former students, one whose artistic potential I could see very early…had come to a tragic end to her life.

She had become a teacher…a very good one, I’m told.  That one question, “I wonder what her life was like”, is now answered.

I’m too sad to cry right now.  I can only hope that she thought of me often like I thought of her.

I know the pebbles of encouragement she tossed as a teacher will have very long-lasting ripples.  Little circular waves that will go on for a very, very long time.

I was a single link in the chain of events of her life.  But, by her actions, deeds and love for family and students the chain will go on and on and on…

 

The Old Schoolmaster

SanJuanTeacherStatue

You throw a pebble, a small boulder that you can barely pick up, or a grain of sand into a pool of water.  If there is no wind, you can watch the ripples move out in perfect concentric circles, ever-widening.  The tiny waves keep going until they reach an obstacle and they bounce off into another odd and unexpected angle.

You can never determine the ultimate destiny of the ripples just created by your action.  But, they’re out there somewhere, still displacing another water molecule.

If there is a wind blowing–a wind that changes and causes eddies in the once-calm water, then whatever you started with your pebble is now out of sync with the ripples you hoped for.

It’s a little like being a teacher.  You stand in front of a pool of calm minds and you toss out a pebble of an idea.  How it affects the waters of a child’s brain is out of your control.  Whatever becomes of your comment or question is up to the gods, or the parents, or an uncle or a bully or a future husband or wife of the child.  You can only hope for something humble–like making the child’s world (or future) better by even the smallest degree.

A metaphor: You (as an educator) are like the bed of a vast ocean.  The limitless water is the mind of child multiplied by ten billion.  At the same time, you are the tosser of the pebble, the sower of seeds, and the wind that changes every day in a young person’s life.

It’s a heady feeling…all this power over a mind.  They sit and pretend they don’t hear you, they draw goofy pictures of you as a fool.  They roll their eyes and pass notes.  They flirt with each other and wait for the bell to end the class.

But, they’re listening…maybe with half-an-ear, but they’re listening.

They pretend they don’t like you and that they fear you, but they also revere you.  Most often, they spend more time with you than with their parents.

It’s a heady feeling…all this power over a mind.  But it’s also scary as hell and unsettling as a ghost story.

In a small public park in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, hidden by many buildings, is a statue of a teacher.  I don’t read Spanish, so I couldn’t tell if it was to honor a certain person or educators in general.

I saw this statue and saw myself.  Not that I deserve a monument–God forbid!  But, on the figures shoulders and arms were children.  He/she was the foundation of those lives.

But, I’ve held thousands of young people on my shoulders in 33 years of living in a cloud of chalk-dust.

I don’t want a statue.  I just want to know that a pebble I tossed in 1973, is still causing a small waves in someone’s life.  I didn’t want to change the world, but only wanted a young mind to think again about something and begin to ask their own questions.

I wonder.  Is there one 57 year-old man or woman, someone I taught at a 15-year-old at the start of my career, sitting somewhere and remembering me and my pebbles?