A Meditation on Meetings

Jakobspilger,

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Looking at the title, you might think this blog is about business meetings or faculty meetings or town meetings. A blog where I quote Dave Barry: “If you had to identify in one word the reason the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’”

I could tell you about my first high school faculty meeting in Vermont in 1965 and the two items on the agenda: 1.) a guidance department recommendation to change the students’ cumulative averages from numbers to letters—in other words, instead of graduating with an 86 average, the student would have a B average—and 2.) a faculty committee recommendation that the high school have “differentiated diplomas,” showing whether the student had taken advanced placement, college, business, or general courses. And I could say that after over an hour of discussion, we voted to accept the guidance department’s recommendation and to table the diploma question for another meeting.

I could fast forward 32 years to Maine and the first faculty meeting of the year and the two items on the agenda: 1.) a guidance department recommendation to change the students’ cumulative averages from letters to numbers—in other words, instead of graduating with a B average, the student would have an 86 average—and 2.) a faculty committee recommendation that the high school have “differentiated diplomas,” showing whether the student had taken advanced placement, college, business, or general courses. And that after over an hour of discussion, we voted to accept the guidance department’s recommendation and to table the diploma question for another meeting. And I would add that I left this meeting thinking it was time for me to leave public education.

But I don’t want to write about those kinds of meetings.

Looking back at my journal, I see that a few pages before I started writing about our cruise down the Rhine this summer, I quote Pico Iyer, one of my favorite travel writers: “Travel is at heart about the meeting between one soul and something she doesn’t know, and that encounter will never grow old or disappear.”

This is the kind of meeting I think all of us, whether we travel to Europe or to the grocery store all crave: an encounter to give life meaning.

Later in my journal, I describe a statue in Speyer, Germany entitled Jakobspilger, German for St. James’ Pilgrim. Speyer is part of the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage route to the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela, where, according to Christian tradition, the Apostle Saint James was buried. Rereading my journal now, I realize that for almost six years now (Good Lord!), I’ve been blogging about my various travels—through both exterior and interior landscapes—as a pilgrimage.

And, I can see, as meetings.

In front of Jakobspilger’s long staff, an inscribed biblical verse from Hebrew 13:14, reads, in translation: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” I think of my pilgrimages to so-called “thin places,” where the distance between the secular and the holy, the cities that don’t last and the city which will, shrinks and I’ve met—albeit briefly—the eternal.

Sometimes, it’s a case of immediate recognition: my first glimpse of the Scottish island of Iona rising out of the mist sent chills down my spine, as did my first look up through California’s redwoods. I felt a vital connection, a spark of divinity, bringing me to life.

Closer to home, I’ve always felt more alive this time of year. While, as you can probably tell, I disliked faculty meetings, I always looked forward to meeting my students for the first time. My life was transformed by these meetings, and I’d like to think theirs were as well. Even now, I feel a little more alive watching my grandchildren begin a new year and despite the continuing threat of COVID, evince the same excitement I felt both as a student and as a teacher.

First Day of School 2021

Of course, not all encounters between “one soul and something she doesn’t know” are holy, or even pleasurable. Meeting death for the first time when my daughter died of cancer was the most painful experience of my life. And in her suffering during the nine months leading up to her death, I met Evil, felt it as a tangible presence: obscene, grotesque, and powerful.  These encounters also immediately changed my life.

More often, however, my most important meetings have taken me weeks, months, or years to recognize as being life changing. My favorite of all the resurrection stories in the Bible is that of the two disciples of Jesus walking on the Road to Emmaus after the crucifixion who meet Jesus and don’t recognize him until later, in “the reading of scripture and the breaking of the bread.” I’ve been married twice and in both cases, my first meeting with the woman with whom I would live “for better or worse, in sickness or in health,” for twenty and thirty-five years respectively made little or no impression on me.

When I was there, I hated the old city of Jerusalem, its heat, its religious tensions, its commercialism. Yet in the following weeks, I began to realize I had a clearer understanding of the complexity of Israeli and Palestinian relationships, that I understood the Bible differently (God, people then must have had legs of steel to walk up and down all those hills, and no wonder water was so important!) and that Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection made sense in ways it never had. Another encounter that, as Pico Iyer says, “…will never grow old or disappear.”

And then there are the times when I’ve met someone again for the first time. In some ways, I find these meetings the most satisfying. Students I taught forty years ago who reappear in my life as wise and witty adults. Old high school classmates (my 60th high school reunion is coming up), some of whom I never had much contact with, but whose Facebook posts make me laugh and cry.

The 45th High School Reunion

My wife, who surprises me every day. And, thanks to working my 12-step program, the me I’ve never met before, the one I’ve hidden for years behind any number of personas.

All of these engagements educate me, help me grow, even at my age.

So why are the other meetings so enervating? I’m not sure. I don’t think it has to do with size; I’ve had important 12-step and men’s group meetings with over twenty people in them. Rather, I think it might have something to do with whether our meetings are about making external changes—to numbers, letters, diplomas—or about personal transformation. In Al Anon or our men’s group, for example, there’s no trying to solve anything. There’s sharing instead of discussing. People speak from their hearts and not their egos.

Which shows me—and this is hard to write for someone who’s spent his life setting goals and trying to reach them—that being alive, really alive, is more about souls than it is about goals.

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