Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

The hell or heaven we create for ourselves

I think it is highly significant that while I teach children I am facing a clock on the wall behind them. They are about ten years old, bodies twinkling with life and laughter, oblivious to “clock time”. They relish the present moment as I try and keep my lessons chock-a-block with games. I am a great believer in teaching them English through fun activities. This imitates how we naturally soak up our mother tongues on the kindergarten playground and don’t even learn the words grammar or tenses until we get to “big school”. I find myself watching that clock to see if I should move onto the next step of the lesson or, much worse, when will the lesson end? Sometimes the lesson drags (for me) as that second hand and minute hand drag across the clock face, the slowly moving feelers of a dying cockroach.

But outside are the tall plane trees, instructors offering their lesson to me this winter. Their tops nod at us on the second or third floors of the school, and are slowly losing their helmets and berets of leaves. They solemnly march in the present moment, unswayed by the human need for psychological time, a ticking hell controlled by our restless minds, or, rather, controlling our minds. The trees wouldn’t know what clock or psychological time is. They majestically surrender to the withering and blossoming of the seasons. These cycles are sharply defined here in China. The temperature will literally often plummet on December the first, as it did yet again this year here in Suzhou.

Have you not noticed how we are often just waiting for something to end or something more pleasant to happen? How much of our lives are spent waiting for the bus to come, the traffic light to turn green, our turn in the bank queue and, sadly, when I see that damn clock, for the class to end?

I have taught children most of my adult life. For the most part not as a school teacher, but privately, running my own business (except here in China) and have often been “healthily disappointed” when the lesson ends as there are no damnable clocks, miniature tormentors, on the opposite wall of classes in South Africa.

I think I am allergic to clocks. There is something that just unravels in me, and I would call that my joy. When I ignore the clock — difficult to do, often, as it is there in my face in class — it is amazing how I flow with the lesson and the children. Before I know it the bell rings (or rather, the opening notes of Beethoven’s Für Elise here at this school in Che Feng). And I am standing here, open-mouthed, ball in hand from teaching the kids the lexical set of English words required to play “Piggy in the Middle”. Terms like “catch, the ball, miss the ball, I want to throw the ball to you”. I absolutely want to carry on playing the game after Beethoven starts up.

The game. We are all too often caught up in waiting, instead of being present in that deeper waiting Van Morrison refers to in Waiting Game. There is just something wrong, or not quite right, with the present moment, all too often, wouldn’t you admit? And some anticipated future moment always seems far better than now, or as the mystics would prefer to put it, The Now, giving an extra tah-dah profundity to the words with upper caps.

But, let’s face it, it is always now. It is never the past or the future now, except for the fact we often live for an anticipated future, or spend time muttering about unpleasant events in the past. I know; I do.

Oh, these children around me throwing the ball while I go up and down like a burly yo-yo trying to catch it, never seem to notice time — in my classes, at least. This unknowing shines through their laughing bodies, the deep beginnings of the universe in their dark Chinese eyes, their fingers birds twittering for that ball in the air. Their cries of wonder, waaaaahhhhh! as they catch a mere ball or trick me into missing the ball.

Prancing about with legs, arms and torsos made of magic elastic, they learn these mysterious new word-trinkets and baubles: Throw the ball! Catch the ball! Miss the ball! Waaaaahhhhh!

A simple game. Unlike how often insanely seriously people take life, including me. But right now our faces and hands, upturned to that spinning red ball above, are candles lit to the heavens.

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  • Me trying not to be a sorrowful pain in the arse