As I embark on a Shakespeare unit with my students, nine graders reading Romeo & Juliet and AP Lit reading Hamlet, we start with questions. Questions Elizabethan thinkers might have pondered in 1598; questions we still ponder in 2018. I am struck with our timeless preoccupation over destiny: Are we the masters of our own fate? I ask students to think and write about their beliefs on this topic. Certainly, these teens, like those penned by Shakespeare, want to believe they are, indeed, in control of their outcomes, while I, I who have screamed up at the Heavens in distress, frustrated by the unpredictability of chance, those ‘why me’ moments; “O, I am Fortune’s fool” situations. As if we are pulled by strings invisible to our own hands. Just when we want/need/hope for a different outcome we must settle for what is… but as I look across the classroom at my students, into their hopeful eyes, their exuberant optimism, I see their uniform belief that yes, they are masters of their fate. They aren’t phased by headlines or politicians’ lies; they see their own trajectory as it slants up and beyond, straight into the starry night. Straight into heaven.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn secretly wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich during the Cold War, and now, decades later, during this unforgiving winter, I am warmed by the sense of dignity and hope he instills in his gulag–bound characters. Not to diminish the suffering of the 5,000,000 prisoners who endured cruelty and hardships under Stalin’s rule, but I too am feeling the burdens of this winter season. Crushing cold, violent storms, grey upon white, and a stretch of days ahead that screech more of the same. Survive? Well yes, I will, but I will certainly steal from the wisdom of Solzhenitsyn to make it through. After all, with day after day of sub-zero weather this winter, we can all feel Siberia in our very bones, right? And we need his words more than ever…
Thankfully my survival depends on my own constructs, and is not predicated on outsmarting corrupt guards in a work camp. I find small promises where I can, like sipping my Sunday morning tea in bed. Hot and black with frothed milk. And yes, snuggled under a down comforter. The raw day can wait…
Recently I thought about the whole half-full half-empty glass question. In all honesty, I have to admit, I can be a half-empty person. Shocked? Well, that top half, the one that starts at the brim and ends in the middle, that half always looks so enticing. Nothing like a full glass. A first sip brings a smile to anyone’s face. And I’m always eager to get topped off to experience a full glass over and over again. But sometimes in the midst of a whole lot of fun I start worrying about the end. I stop being in the moment and before I know it I am no longer enjoying what is in front of me.
But right then and there in that realization I made a decision to look at my half-empty glass and see it not as empty, not yet, in fact, see there is much left to savor. A half-full glass of anything is still refreshing, so why not love every sip until the last drop? Why let my eyes drift to the bottom? Why worry about an experience being over while still enjoying it?
As we are mid-way through summer, I thought I’d end this pattern by not focusing on the end date, and look at the calendar with possibility. Plenty of mornings to swim. Plenty of dinners to cook outdoors. Plenty of nights to watch for shooting stars. Plenty of cocktails to toast with friends. Plenty of sunshine to fuel our funshine.
Growing up in a Catholic household, Christmas was heralded with much anticipation. An evergreen tree was carried into our living room and brightly adorned, Advent candles were ceremoniously lit, festive parties filled the calendar, stockings were hung on Christmas Eve, and there was always a visit to Santa Claus. Others might have donned him Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas or Kris Kringle, but no matter we all slept assured of his Christmas Eve arrival bearing all the gifts we dared wish for. No matter what upheavals life might have in store, Santa was a given; on the backbone of that one universal truth, a childhood imagination solidly rested. Through one’s belief in Santa Claus, anything was possible. You could become an astronaut or a ballerina. Certainly you would find happiness.