Moment of Zen

Moment of Zen

October 02, 2012

I was an eight-year-old kid with a singular vision: dominate the world of professional breakdancing. It was the first Breakin’ film, 1984. I saw it in the theatre, was holistically seduced, and immediately set out to make a better-than-average living winning epic dance battles. I practiced every day. I wanted to make my parents proud. What does your son do? Oh, he’s a professional break dancer. You should see him whirl his arms, his signature move, The Helicopter. He practically levitates.

But sometimes a new year is like a whiteboard eraser. Swoop, the whole scheme disappears. The markers reappear. You start sketching again. Ditch digger. Bread baker. Tree climber.

Now I’m an assistant professor of English at Northern Michigan University. A hundred swipes of the eraser and here I am, teaching creative nonfiction to students who are mostly awake.

Wednesdays are our Moments of Zen. We workshop on Mondays, spinning each other’s sentences on their heads and saying things like: this would be perfect if you cut the first two pages and changed the ending. Everyone feels a bit exhausted. Wednesdays are a time to chill, chat and reflect on the validity and importance of turning real life into prose.

I start here, with this classic of viral videos, The Double Rainbow guy. What I hate is that we laugh at him. He’s crazy! we say. He’s high! Really, he was a person profoundly moved by a simple, real, natural experience. If only we all absorbed life at that level.

The real hinge, though, comes at 1:18 when, after some gasping and weeping, Yosemite Bear asks, “What does this mean?” It’s the question of the true nonfictionist, the person trying to mine memories or experiences or curiosities for significance.

A double rainbow? Could be pots of gold. Pride. Hope. The manifest promise of an invisible God. I’m not sure what the Bear discovered when he scrutinized his euphoria, but he was on the right track, the same self-reflective path I wish for all my students.

Next is the trailer for Sebastien Montaz-Rosset’s film, Flight of the Frenchies. Something in me aches every time I watch this footage. The beauty of the human body, the gumption, the adrenaline quest that guides so many of our lives.

A young woman tries to describe what she has just witnessed at 3:00: a parachute-free, harnessless slackline stroll across a deadly ravine. In the fog. In the whistling wind. She points to her throat.

“The breath is like, up there,” she says.

“It’s so good,” says the man who just almost died tiptoeing across a chasm. “It’s so good.”

I ask my students to remember a time life caught in their throats. From suspense, fear, joy, beauty. Whatever. We embody it, this living. They must start in present tense, without context or back story, right at the moment of breathlessness.

I make this stuff up. Not sure it’s pedagogically sound, but they give me health insurance and a salary. I keep at it.

Another Wednesday, another Moment of Zen. I’m a fan of this one from the band Umbrella Tree. The footage came from the visor of my big brother’s helmet as he plummeted again and again from a rickety plane to terra firma. The music is fabulous. The melody a kind of sparse, string-heavy flight of its own. But it’s the lyrics that bite. They come from a conversation a band member had with a woman on a Nashville bus, almost verbatim.

“I used to ask him/all of the time/what’s going to happen/to us when we die?”

What a beautiful convergence, I say. Snatching up a found object, this chat with a grieving woman on a public bus, footage from my brother’s forehead, and turning it into a piece of art. I ask my students to keep a journal of overheard conversations and to pick up every scrap of paper they find on campus. To be sponge-like and curious. You never know when you’ll find true poetry bubble-gummed to the ground, I say. They roll their eyes. I offer extra credit.

There are so many Moments of Zen. Too many to document. A semester of Wednesdays, two new semesters each year. I could have been a break dancer. Instead I’m a professor.

This one, though, is my favorite. A robotic arm moves a camera in profoundly slow motion through Yosemite. A single second meets a million. The footage time-lapses into a cinematic deluge. The Milky Way arcs across my computer screen as fast as a Ferris wheel.

Look, I say. Look at us spinning through the cosmos on this incredible rock. We are a blip. A tiny pulse in the universe’s endless vascular system.


I mime this. I stand on my tippytoes and thuthump up and down.

That’s us! I say. The blip! That’s all we’ve got. What will we do? What will we do?

What I wish is for all of my students to stand up at once and exclaim: we’ll capture it! We’ll turn it into art!

Mostly they nod and stare. And that’s fine.

I still like this job, this current life sketch. Semester after semester I get to share with students the stuff that excites me the most about nonfiction writing. Learning how to be curious and contemplative. Making interesting connections. Practicing day after day until the words finally feel right.

Lasting prose rarely comes easy, after all. No one wins an epic dance battle by accident.

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