…reads the shirt staring at me, long and hard, across the crowded coffee shop. The man displaying this motto across his chest is unassuming, weathered, and lost in a book.
I sit two tables and many lifetimes away from him, flipping intently through one of my favorite college books, “The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women.” I’ve picked this gem up again because I’ve been feeling particularly womanly lately, a feminist mystique radiating from my usually gender-mellow aura.
I think that this lady charge comes with the onset of winter break, and the frenzied state of my school and classroom. I have slipped into mom mode. I’m living in hushed tones and deep breaths, trying to maintain some semblance of order. Constantly redirecting frustrations, tears; shooing and ever-so-sweetly directing children to calm the hell down. Please. Sweetheart, please.
Nonetheless, here I sit in the midst of my “me time”, investigating the ancient paths of some of the most thoughtful and inspiring women warriors. My hope is that I can learn from them. Since it’s a Sunday and I still need to lesson plan, maybe I can find the answer to something simple like, “What is my purpose in life?” That is what’s been on my mind lately, after all.
The introduction to this wonderful book alerts me to the realization that if only my thinking was clear, and I conformed myself to rational thought, my life would be on the right track. Naturally, I wonder, how in the world do I manage to engage in something even close to rational thought with the complexities of the life that I lead? I mean seriously, just last week I got the flu, had my chapstick stolen and then returned (ew… not a big deal just really annoying), and put in a seventy hour work week. I laugh in the face of clear thinking and rational thought. HAHA! Of course these ancient broads could attain enlightenment! All they had to do was renounce all of their things and run off into the desert for some locust-filled bon bons and casual R & R. SPRING BREAK 1100 B.C.E. I wish.
However, as I begin to really read into their accounts, I realize that for them, leaving their homes, homes that were comfortable and lavish, wasn’t awesome. At first, I saw them as quitters; leaving behind their messy lives for self-actualization in the desert. Vacation monasticism. However, as I read on, I get the sense that they really did want to be closer to God, and that their trip into the desert wasn’t an escape, it was a challenge, and a burden they were willing to take in the name of everything they believed. The Ammas left their lives of riches and comfort, to become mindful and intentional about their lives and their paths. They entered the desert hoping to find meaning through sacrifice. They were cautious, without the negative connotation of fear.
When I open myself up to this perspective, and take a look at my own life, I realize that there is no desert to flee to. This is simply because the desert is already here. I am already encompassed in the dunes and soul-searching of the desert mothers. There is no pilgrimage outside of the one that I am already on. Especially now, in the wake of school tragedies and desperate cries from children across America, the group most hardened and marginalized by our country’s troubles, I feel like I must be brave as I confront this new wilderness.
When I think about it even more, whatever comfort I did have I forfeited on this journey into the harsh environment of middle school and post-graduate “real” life. Now the question remains, what is my goal? If the classroom is my ascetic wilderness, do I stay there until I attain enlightenment? Do I allow this experience to open my heart and remind me of how I want to live?
The mothers saw the desert journey as an opening for vulnerability. This leads me to an understanding that I must open myself up to my job, even the parts that I don’t like, with a respect and understanding of the goal, the whole, whatever it may be. It’s scary, you know, letting yourself be bad at something new. A struggle is a struggle; whether it is under the heat and scrutiny of the hot desert sun or the fluorescent lights of my classroom and the constant drone of misunderstanding and test scores that don’t make the grade.
I think about my quest for enlightenment and my need to have it all figured out. I get frustrated with myself when I don’t have all of the answers. But then I think about what I tell my students every day: “It’s not that you don’t understand. It’s just that you don’t understand, yet.”
The “yet” is what keeps them going. It reminds them that education isn’t final. They’re not losers or winners. They’re just learning. And while I can research desert life and asceticism until I can hear the crunch of sand and filth under my sandals, or feel the sting of sweat in my eyes, nothing is more powerful than the “yet” of my own journey. Sure, I don’t know the ultimate goal that I’m supposed to be searching for in life, but maybe nobody truly does. All I know is that I’m searching for something; inner peace, true happiness, love or the like. Maybe I’ll never find the illustrious meaning of life, but I can sure enjoy the parts of life that I don’t understand…yet.