Our Teachers are Everywhere: In Memory of Richard Nielsen

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

****I would like to dedicate this article, written some months ago, to Richard Nielsen, my first “real” boss out of school, who nurtured and taught me so much, who passed away late last month, on Oct 25.

 

I’m still not exactly how this poem came to me so many years ago.

I was nearing the end of my Master’s degree, thesis completion was a vague idea on the distant horizon, when I realized that the real world I had heard rumors about was barreling toward me.

No more scholarships or teaching assistant-ships or help with the rent. Now I needed to make the connection between having money and being alive. I needed security and a future. I needed that alien phenomenon exclusively known to a universe alternate to my own: a full-time job.

I felt wildly unprepared for life.

Life: which included working, wearing high heels and suits, running errands on those mysterious lunch hours and meeting people for happy hour cocktails—was the strange stuff of Grown-ups Land.

I was still a bit confused about how I wasn’t a teenager anymore. Or anywhere close to that.

Grown-ups knew how to do things in fancy office buildings that changed the way the world ran, could discuss world economic trends and easily deduce which fertilizer would help the backyard grass remain on the correct side of survival.

What did I know? Sure, I could elucidate the finer points of film theory and the philosophy of color, and could give you a frame-by-frame account of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

I could dabble in debates on ideological apparatuses and idealize to my hearts’ content about what it might be like to live in a world where everyone had the luxury of sitting in cafe’s and talking about meaningful things, or being washed over by the most amazing works of art—my version of what everyone must dream about.

My world and the world of working adults were on opposing sides of a wall that was not only gargantuan, but only growing with every brick of fear I laid on top of it.

Somehow, through this thicket of terror, I found a small production company looking for an executive assistant, and I got the job.

I lasted about a year, working for a surly-yet-kind tower of a man, a former big player in the world of network television who was now going it alone, making documentaries on subjects close to his heart.

We were both going through transitions. I was (relatively) young, confused and riddled with existential uncertainty. He was past his productive prime, having health issues, and not used to being vulnerable, trying to squeeze his huge personality and wealth of ideas through a tiny-budget frame to a world not entirely receptive.

I feel now, we met at exactly the right time.

We both lost patience easily and tended toward frustration. I would grow exasperated over his inability to turn on his computer and he rightfully scorned me for not knowing my place.

But we had something really special. We both cherished our early mornings, when we were the first two in the office. I’d sit across from him, purportedly to receive my instructions for the day. Sometimes he’d be pricking himself to check his blood sugar levels. We invariably talked philosophy.

We were both hungry for this. He had a Danish background and loved ruminating about Kierkegaard. I got the feeling that he didn’t have too many opportunities in his day to muse like this.

I was too newly out of school to appreciate how rare his philosophical disposition was. He never once let on that I was hopelessly naïve, but rather, chose to talk to me in earnest about things he knew mattered to both of us.

He had the humility, patience and wisdom of a Buddha/saint, but all I knew at the time was that he was mildly eccentric and highly erratic, and I loved this and hated this at the same time.

Then, one day, he took me out for sashimi and kindly suggested that maybe it was time for me to move on. I know he saw what I only realized later: that I felt I was way over-qualified and under-appreciated at my job, and that this attitude was surely, negatively affecting my work environment.

He somehow made me feel good about myself in the act of letting me go. He made me feel like I could walk away with my head held high, in search of what would satisfy me.

It was a long, long search, and it is still ongoing in many ways.

From time to time, I remember one day when I got back to my desk after my lunch hour, and found a piece of paper there. It was a photocopy with a poem on it. No author, nothing. Just the poem, which I eventually sourced to a Russian poet (this was before Wikipedia).

I never asked my boss, but I knew he left it there for me. It vividly asks that we consider stepping out of the confines of our mind and into the realm of pure, ecstatic living. I didn’t really know what that was at the time, and certainly had no clue that it would only get harder to find, unless I made certain life choices.

To this day, I am overcome with emotion every time I read this love poem to awakening, which I was so privileged to receive from one of my true teachers, and wanted to share with everyone here. 

Memento by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Like a reminder of this life

of trams, sun, sparrows,

and the flighty uncontrolledness

of streams leaping like thermometers,

and because ducks are quacking somewhere

above the crackling of the last, paper-thin ice,

and because children are crying bitterly

(remember children’s lives are so sweet!)

and because in the drunken, shimmering starlight

the new moon whoops it up,

and a stocking crackles a bit at the knee,

gold in itself and tinged by the sun,

like a reminder of life,

and because there is resin on tree trunks,

and because I was madly mistaken,

in thinking that my life was over,

like a reminder of my life—

you entered into me on stockinged feet.

You entered—neither too late nor too early—

at exactly the right time, as my very own,

and with a smile, uprooted me

from memories, as from a grave.

And I, once again whirling among

the painted horses, gladly exchange,

for one reminder of life,

all its memories.

This article was published in  elephant journal, here.

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