Tuesday, October 9, 2012
When I was seventeen, I had this amazing teacher named Mrs. Hughes. She taught a variety of subjects but I was in her humanities class. One of the things I loved about her method of teaching was that she always sought beneath several layers. We could not just look at a painting and see one thing. We weren't allowed to watch a movie and just vege out. She taught us to look for meaning and find application for ourselves. Even if it didn't make sense. Even if we were the only one who understood our own discovery.
One day, I rushed into her class (because hers was the rare sort I'd never be late for) and pulled out my book and lined paper, ready to take notes. But today, she instructed us to pack up our bags, clear our desks, and climb underneath them. Skeptical glances flitted from person to person but we all did as she asked and sat indian-style on the floor.
Mrs. Hughes flipped off the lights, crossed the room to a little old stereo, and pushed play. Enya's Caribbean Blue filtered through the air. It wasn't particularly loud, a gentle ebb in the background. She told us to close our eyes. This proved to be a bit much for some students, who immediately asked what we were up to but our teacher shushed them and said, "Trust me."
I admit to feeling a little uncomfortable. Not because it felt a little hippy-ish, but rather that it felt like a such a vulnerable thing to close my eyes in the middle of thirty kids cowering under our desks. At seventeen, I was a swirling universe of lost, my nucleus a heart of pure lonely. Most of the time, I covered myself with anger, hostility, a bit of brazen vulgarity, or ducked into a thick book and pretended no one else was alive. The idea of closing my eyes to a room full of people just felt raw and itchy. But she asked me to trust her and so far, Mrs. Hughes hadn't done anything to hurt me.
For a while, it was just dark. Just the near-quiet music. Just a bunch of squirmy kids peeking under their lashes at each other. After a time, our teacher told us to picture in our mind our favorite place. It couldn't be just any old place we liked. It had to be the place. The place where we last remembered real peace. A place we were able to be wholly ourselves. The last place we felt the kind of happiness distilled into simplicity.
That place, for me, was four years back. A flat horizon, rippling with dying sunlight. A stretch of sand seemingly endless. Wet frothing at my toes and a salty surge of power strong enough to kill me, but instead only parting around my calves and drawing away with a reluctant pull. San Francisco Beach.
I'd vacationed there with a friend and spent a fleeting fifteen minutes darting across the ground, rushing into the waves, and setting my soul loose in the surf. It was, and is, a moment pulled free of time. My mind felt empty, devoid of care or worry or fear. I screamed and laughed and ran until I was breathless and dusted with grit. Such a short time. I have only ever been there once in my lifetime.
With my eyes closed and ears full of Enya's brand of sea, it startled me to hear Mrs. Hughes direct us again. She told us to envision ourselves there, dressed as we were now. She told us to walk around, reacquaint ourselves, try and sense what it was about that place that drew us. After another bout of silence, she gave us our last bit of instruction.
"Do you see yourselves? Clearly? Now, in your mind's eye, turn around. Across the way, a person is walking toward you. As they get closer, you realize they seem familiar. Class, this person is yourself. Your ideal self."
In my mind, the moment is fuzzy around the edges. That same sunset bleeds across the sky. The beach is dimpled with light and shadow, little pockets of dark mouthing my feet. I'm clad in jeans, a plain white t-shirt, and some ratty sneakers. My hair hangs straight around my face, untouched by the wind.
The woman crossing the sand toward me looks so different, it's difficult to think we're the same person. Her feet are bare, each step a little dig-shuffle, and she's wearing a loose dress, its colors vague and blurred like a Monet. One of her hands holds a pair of flat-bottomed sandals and the other is pressed to her head, holding a large-brimmed straw hat in place. Her strangest feature is the contented smile on her face.
I'm too stunned to move, to do anything but watch her come closer. As she nears, she calls out a friendly greeting and asks me how I am. I give her some sort of terse response, which she doesn't even seem to feel. Instead, she asks me about myself, if there is anything she can do for me. The conversation has grown hazy over the years but I remember her gently prying at me, slithering beneath my defenses.
I like her. A thought that collides in my mind because I know myself and I do not like myself. Something must have gone awry in my imaginings because we cannot be the same person—not in this universe. Yet, she looks like an older version of me. The same green eyes. The same height. The same curve in her calves.
After a time, she nods her head toward me and says she has to go. I find myself feeling bereft, reluctant to see her leave. She places a hand on my upper arm, tells me that we'll meet again, and leaves with a smile. I am watching her go when Mrs. Hughes interrupts for the last time.
"Class, I want you to ask yourself something. This person you just met, your ideal self, are they a stranger to you?"
Yes. A resounding yes! And my teacher's final bit of wisdom was this: "What do you have to do now to become that person later?"
There are many things Mrs. Hughes taught me, things that still remain and bubble up through my thoughts, but this one very strange day visits me often. Through the years, I have returned to that red-stained beach and foamy water. I have crossed the sand and met my ideal self. She is ever the same, a lovely woman dressed with kindness and a remarkable vision for comfort. I'm always stunned by how happiness is wedded to her every word.
At each meeting, I am different. I have grown from that dark, stormy girl and if I am still shadowed, it is remarkably less so than at our first introduction. I am not yet that simple, content woman—but I am getting closer. Our conversations are not so stilted. I'm able to return some of that warmth she so willingly gives.
I am not yet my ideal self. But thanks to Mrs. Hughes, I know where to find her. She's no longer a stranger to me.