Distilling wonders into words, says my “about me” page, since two thousand ten.
While true, and catchy, and a play on the blog’s subtitle “Words and Wonders,” I’ve never taken considerable time to actually say what these four words mean.
In times of continued self-exploration, I often find myself thinking, “What do I value?” Today, these two questions seem more intertwined than distinct.
Back in 2013, when I attended the LeaderShape Institute, I spent an entire summer considering my values–and the words I settled upon became the basis of my reorganizing and rebranding The Writingwolf. I felt so certain, with such conviction, that these values would never change. Like with most things I thought stable in life, it wasn’t.
Values, like tides, seem to ebb and flow. Once active observation of Jewish tradition was among the most salient of my identity markers; now my expressions of faith are among the most passive, upholding the values and beliefs without going through the motions.
Yet that list I made, it’s not completely irrelevant today.
Diversity. Service. Learning.
These words still mean a lot to me, and the fact I was clever enough to align myself with three values that share my initials is testament to the unspoken cleverness I also value. Except I can’t say if these three things are still top of the list. Certainly, they have and continue to define my life in the present, but these three words now feel inadequate.
(And because they are my initials, I wonder what else that says about me.)
In a sense, my level of attention has shifted. I don’t mean I’m paying less or more attention, so let me give a clarifying example: Last summer, in my first round of teaching and high-intensity teacher training (let’s call it HITT and make it sound trendy), I felt a particular strain of powerlessness that was only diffused in a conversation with TFA Milwaukee’s executive director at the time. He told me there are two levels of social change: There’s the high-level systemic change lobbying for institutional, even cultural, reconstruction; and then there’s the ground-level interpersonal change.
The first changes the future. It strives to remake antiquated systems, to build equity directly into the law of the land, but it leaves followers feeling lonely at best, and at worse, disconnected from the very people they aim to serve.
The latter changes the present. Its foremost concern isn’t the systems we live within, but the people we live with. The interpersonal fulfillment is staggering, but the longitudinal potential is limited, so its followers often feel constrained and hopeless, always cognizant of the fact that while I might change this one life today, my work has been meaningless for the hundreds and thousands of lives who must endure this system tomorrow.
As a college student studying political science and participating in student organizations, I became invested in the first model of social change. As a teacher, I live in the second.
Diversity and service and learning may very well still be at the core of my value system, but the core is far from the surface, and how these values become manifest today is something I’m still discerning. I have loved every moment in the classroom (even those moments that made me terribly angry or upset), but I have sorely missed the sense of accomplishment, of actual change that comes from lobbying and advocacy.
It’s no secret, I think, that my 10- or 20-year plans take me out of the classroom and into public office. I can only stay on the ground for so long before my wings need to fly.
I began this conversation quoting distillation, but it’s been a while since I brought it up. Distillation is the process by which something is separated into its component parts. For a man as devoted to diversity and service as I am, defining my life in terms of separating things that are different sounds fundamentally flawed. Oh, how wrong that is.
Let’s start at the beginning: In 2010, I began Words and Wonders. What did that mean?
Words–because I’m a writer–and wonders–because I wrote about the things that made my mind whir, things that made me wonder…but when did that noun become a verb?
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, wonder traces its origins back to Old English, in which it was first a noun meaning a “marvelous thing, miracle, object of astonishment.” Through time, the word gained additional senses: as a noun, it began to refer also to the emotion, the astonishment, of witnessing such a wonder, and as a verb, it now meant “to be astonished, admire, make wonderful, magnify” and eventually also “to entertain some doubt or curiosity.” It’s a pretty loaded word actually.
As is often the case, one things leads to another, and now we are forced to wonder, if its definition is founded in astonishment, where did this word come from?
While the two words evolved in a similar time period, astonish came from the French, rather than the English, with the meaning “to stun, strike senseless” or “to daze, deafen, astound,” ultimately derived from the Latin literally meaning “to leave someone thunderstruck.” As an avid member of Team Instinct, mascot the bird of thunder itself, it’s fairly fitting that wonderment should be such a staple of this blog.
But what does any of this have to do with distillation?
The things that inspire me to write are often those that leave me thunderstruck, the things that daze me, that astound me. It is the wonder of the world–the quest for curiosity, the miraculous and mind-blowing–that I want to instill in my writing.
But there’s a more intimate association between wonders and words. I said earlier that my Jewish practice has become passive, espousing the values but absent the outward practice. In fact, many of my deepest values come not from the main body of Judaism, but from its practice of mysticism, of Kabbalah (a word which here means “to receive,” in much the same sense that a man witnessing the world’s wonders himself receives the sense of wonderment they inspire). It is said, in this tradition, that God created the world through words: God said ‘Let there be light’; and there was light (Genesis 1:3).
In the same sense that atoms are the building blocks of matter on a physical level, on a spiritual level, these building blocks are the Hebrew letters themselves, arranged into words that give the world meaning and structure.
The Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Formation, one of the foundational texts of the Kabbalah, discusses how each letter represents a state of consciousness, how each letter shapes the worlds within us and around us. Just like we can’t see atoms and molecules with our bare eyes, neither can we see the letters and the words at the heart of every thing.
This is the part that makes “distilling wonders into words” make sense: the art of writing is separating wonderment into its constituent parts, into the feeling itself and the words that carry it. I cannot pass along wonder unfiltered; it is, by definition, a solitary experience. But I can at least attempt to reconstruct that wonder through words–and if I become skilled enough, insightful enough, perhaps I can channel the world and present to you those same words that I witnessed in their physical form.
This need to reconstruct is also indicative of a deeper Jewish value: that of tikkun olam, repairing the world, the source of inspiration that leads so many Jews to service.
Another story from the Kabbalah: At the dawn of time, God placed a fraction of himself in a vessel, but even a fraction of infinity is still infinite, so the vessel shattered. Small sparks of God imbued all things in the world that came, “every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name” (it’s perhaps ironic, in some sense of the word at least, how Pocahontas taught me this years before I heard its Jewish equivalent).
Tikkun olam is the act of gathering these sparks and raising them up. It is the act of setting the world on fire, of joining the sparks together into a raging conflagration.
(So when I say I want to watch the world burn, I mean it differently than the Joker.)
This brings the act of inspiration full circle–this word is derived from the same source that gives us breathing, and breathing upon fire causes the sparks to rise up. So through sharing my inspiration with others, I can help raise those sparks of God even higher.
It’s why teaching is so personally fulfilling: I witness these fires every day, working with the smallest smoldering sparks to help them reach higher and burn brighter than before.
The problem with a binary culture, however, is that the integration of seeming opposites into a singular whole is at times difficult, compounded by the fact that our brains cannot multitask, but rather “dual process,” going back and forth between two tasks–often with diminished attention and efficacy as the result.
First I spoke about distillation, then values, then distillation again. It’s time to get back to values, those ethereal things I can’t pin down, where my mind presently wonders.
Diversity. Service. Learning.
These are all manifestations of a singular thing. Diversity is, as has been said too many times, only skin deep; it is, at its core, ultimately superficial, because all things are composed of the same things, the same 22 letters arranged in hundreds of thousands of different ways. But if we parse out these letters, we’re all equally the same.
Even learning is intimately related to the others. As we learn, our brains build new connections and greater capacity to think and learn, to discern, and it’s through discernment that we can recognize when things are different and when they are the same. Learning about diversity allows us to see how alike we really are.
And service. Service is, perhaps, the closest to the core, for to serve we must learn, and to bring together separate sparks, we must first learn what separates them–and in many ways today, it is our diversity that sets us apart.
In some sense, this entire conversation has been an affirmation of the things I already knew. What bothers me today is not what I know, but what I don’t know–the daily outcomes I aspire to, the long-term goals I want to pursue. Surely these things are all informed by my values, my core values especially, but diversity and service and learning each mean very little if not contextualized, differentiated, and enacted. Today I serve by teaching children; today you might serve by tending to the elderly, beautifying the earth, raising large sums of money for charitable organizations, and so on, so forth.
Somewhere amid all these possible manifestations, I want a relationship, for example, and I can tell you exactly what I want from it: I want a partner who will help me learn and grow, whose fire feeds mine and whose fire I can feed with mine. This statement, grounded in the deepest values of my identity, is so generalized that it is meaningless. What does this look like in life? How does one go about finding such a partnership?
My qualms about careers and education and moving back to North Carolina, even exercising or getting a tattoo, are all manifestations of these deeper values, but at the present I only know it in its deepest sense, and for all we have, life is a shallow experience, lived on the surface, far removed from the smoldering sparks inside us.
I am no closer to certainty now than when I began, but perhaps I’ve taken the wonder I’m wrestling with and distilled it into words clear enough that others might understand.