Well. I made a student cry this week. Sadly, it's not the first time. The first-year writing course I teach is called Writing About Multicultural Lives, so we get into a lot of stuff—religion, politics, money, gender roles, race…the list goes on and on—that tends to come with stories, personal stories. Whatever the students' views may be, I try to get them to look at the other side, even if I don't agree with it. Maybe especially if I don't agree with it. I want them to look more deeply at the world, more critically, and that's tough to do if they don't expand their outlook. The class attracts students from across the cultural spectrum, and is a particular draw for international students which, I think, benefits the American-born students as much as anyone else.
So we're starting to talk about myth this week—religion, super heroes, monsters, you name it. I make a point of saying that when I talk about faith as myth it's not because I'm trying to denigrate it; I was raised Episcopalian, and still identify as one, even though I have no idea when the last time was I stepped foot in a church that didn't involve someone getting baptized, married, or buried. That's a long tangent of a story, but the short version is that for various reasons I lost the church I grew up in, and never found another congregation that fit me the same way. All this to say that I approach faith, in the context of the classroom, as myth in order to keep it all on the same footing: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Greek and Roman myth—we're talking about the places they hold in our lives, not the faiths themselves most of the time.
At one point, the conversation turned to different views of the afterlife: the idea that our matter returns to the earth and ends up in something or someone else, as well as the question of what happens to the soul—and if a soul, as such, even exists, or if it's a way of talking about the electrical impulses in our brains combined with our own experiences and memories. Questions for the ages, questions that different faiths—or lack of faith—answer in different ways. And I mentioned Turquoise—that she had died less than a year ago, how terribly I missed her, and that sometimes, even though I know better, and even though she spent close to the last two decades of her life on the opposite side of the country from me, I still think I see her out of the corner of my eye. I turn my head, and the reality is sometimes comical—once, it was a tree; another time, it was my own reflection in a window at night; once it was an elderly man. And intellectually, I said, I know it's ridiculous. I know that she is not there. She died, and her body was cremated. It cannot, by any measure, be her.
And yet it is her.
For as long as it takes for me to turn my head to look at not-her, it is her, and she is there.
And I told the students this—briefly, even less eloquently—in an attempt to…I'm not sure what. Open a discussion about the ability for us to hold contradictory notions, for one thing. Help to describe one aspect of how complicated faith is, for another. Spend a little time thinking about how we hold it all, and how it shapes our ability to understand each other, and—yes, it's an ambitious 50 minutes—how we create what we think we want, be it through wanting others to share our beliefs in an attempt to convince ourselves that we're right or through creating our own comfort. It all tied together in ways I'm not articulating well right now. Themes that we've been discussing all semester, about identity and identification, about acceptance and attempts at understanding, about moving our world view past our own foreheads in the hopes that we'll gain a slightly better grasp of the world and what we believe to be our place in it, all of these themes came together in the way that I always hope will happen during the second half of the semester. And during it all, one young woman had started to cry.
I suppose it wasn't unexpected. She told me at the beginning of the semester that her father had died during the winter break, suddenly, in an accident that she didn't completely understand. And when I spoke of seeing Turquoise while simultaneously knowing that I couldn't possibly be seeing Turquoise, this student knew all too well what I meant. I apologized to her after class—seriously, the last thing I want to do is make a student cry—and she amazed me with how gracious she was about it.
One of the things she told me was that her father has been coming to her in dreams. She said, "They say that we need to say goodbye, and that sometimes that's what the dreams are, if someone dies suddenly. We need to say goodbye, and once that happens the dreams are supposed to stop."
Thing is, there is no "supposed to." I wish there were some sort of schedule, that I could say, "Okay, it's been three (or four or a thousand) months, and now this part is over and this new part starts." And I told her that, as if it would help anything at all, as if she didn't already know. By the time she left the room, she seemed to be okay. But I know she's not.
I want all this to circle around somehow. I want to be able to tell you that I brought that student comfort, and that in doing so I found some of my own. Or that the times when I’ve seen Turquoise in dreams—especially in the dreams that leave me happy, as if we’ve just had a long visit—are helping me to understand what happened to her or what my life is supposed to be like without her. Or that I've somehow reconciled myself to seeing Turquoise in places where she cannot be, or even to the fact that she cannot be there. She is everywhere, she just is. She is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, and I haven't quite figured out what to do with that.