Monday, July 2, 2012

learning and unlearning and ...

When you live in a small house once peopled by three children and two adults, things tend to accumulate. Random piles of purchases and achievements and board games and books and homework and who knows what else dot the landscape. I'm sure others are more disciplined and neat and I suspect that they have more disposable income ... but whatever the case, random shit is part of the landscape at my house, a challenge to my neat-freak tendencies. The avalanche of time and stuff has scored a KO in my life.

This morning, sitting on the porch, an oddment of the past caught my eye ... a class assignment accomplished by my younger son long before he attained his current 6'2", 200-plus-pound status. I'm guessing he was in the first or second grade when he completed the calendar assignment.

Each number has little dots to indicate its formation. The challenge: Connect the dots with a crayon. Left and right are imaginative snowmen ... color them as you see fit. And at the bottom, sign your name.

Adults may smile indulgently and with a small wondering about where it all went so fast, but today I saw this small class assignment as a perfect indicator, a perfect example of ... of what? ... a whole life, perhaps.

The calendar's learning curve is hardly steep from an adult point of view. From a kid point of view, an unknowing point of view, well, who knows how daunting the exercise may have been? To connect the dots requires some care and in that care, both neatness and the correct formation of numbers is taught. Sequence is drummed in -- four precedes five and five precedes 19. Even the snowmen have outlines and staying within the lines produces the most satisfactory results. And then there is practicing the writing of your very own name: There was a time, perhaps long forgotten, when that was no easy matter.

Learning ... step by step, particular by particular, repetition by repetition. It's important. It has its uses. It makes life easier. It is good for the social fabric, teaching as it does both accomplishment and failure and therefore, perhaps, a sense of humility or perhaps arrogance.

Endless, endless learning. Connecting the dots of employment or marriage or sadness or joy or birth or death. "I know that" is invariably coupled with the next "I don't know that." Everyone seems to be a lean, mean learning machine from start to finish.

And then ... and then ....

What was learned needs to be unlearned ... taken back to a time when what is known was unknown. You can't unthink a purple cow or a first-grade calendar assignment, but the question seems to raise its head: What were things before they were known, before they had the benefit of my 'knowing,' before I learned their ins and outs, dots and signatures? Unlearning, so to speak, can seem to become the greatest bit of learning ever attempted. Before the numbers, where were the numbers? Before the dots ... well, what is that like? It's not that learning to unlearn is somehow better or greater than the learning that came before, it's just that without the unlearning, the picture remains incomplete, like some beautiful mountainside at sunset ... beautiful and yet half in the shade of the dwindling day. What does the rest of the scene look like? What really connects all the dots?

The Zen Buddhists like to ask, "What did I look like before my parents were born?" but that may be too fancy or too contrived so I see no reason not to stick with what is right in front of anyone's nose ... a small class assignment once lovingly completed; a life filled with good learning sometimes achieved through enormous effort.

"I know that" is really pretty good. But I suspect that without the heads on a coin showing tails, things will remain unsatisfactory and uncertain. And they won't become any more satisfactory or certain by elevating or adoring the I-don't-know factor.

Heads and tails come together. They are so tightly woven that even the word "together" can find no hand-hold. Heads and tails ... it's just a nickel, right?

And a nickel used to buy a candy bar.

I like candy.

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