1. The bottom of a tree which remains after the top has been removed.
2. To confuse someone, they do not understand what you mean or cannot figure out your point.
3. To put forward an agenda or beliefs.
4. The place where someone puts forward their agenda or beliefs.
5. The part of a limb or tooth left after the rest has been cut off or broken off.
6. The toughest, strongest part of something, what will remain long after everything else is gone.
When I was a child, one of my favorite memories was walking by myself in the woods of upstate New York on my great uncle’s farm. I had a favorite place that I would sit and look up at the patterns that the sun made through the green leaves, which due to the fact that it was still three or four years before anyone realized I needed glasses, looked quite psychedelic to me. The air was clean and smelt of life. The sounds were both calming and intriguing, birds and animals that I couldn’t see but let me know they were there, streams chattering, leaves sibilate, branches knocking, and it was all timeless; I could sit on that stump for hours and think, imagine, puzzle things out, or just be. Later in first grade, I first heard Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Towards the end of the story, when the tree has nothing else to offer the boy other than just a quiet place to sit and rest, I understood that. It might have been the part of the book that resonated with me most. My classmates were thinking of boats, and apples, and climbing trees; I was the kid who liked the stump. I even thought the story should have had a different title… related to the stump, not the tree.
As a teacher, and just someone with a playful nature, I love to question people, often with ideas bordering on the absurd or nonsensical, often stumping them. I love nonsense and word play, being able to let your brain play in random patterns until connections start being made. I also love to stretch thinking to the breaking point, bringing brains on a roller coaster ride that in a strange way can led to zen when the nonsense is surrendered to and the patterns can actually emerge. When teaching fifth graders (hello Oswego, Fordham, Pace and SU) poetry, I loved using Jabberwocky, and eventually my brightest and my lowest students would be perfectly happy conversing with each other and me in gibberish, often to the dismay of other teachers and more middle of the road students. Sadly, kids today have very few people in their lives that encourage them to play with the absurd. Instead they learn to conform and somehow nonsense and play becomes a bad thing. Something to be left behind, because you are growing up. I wonder how many people actually stop and contemplate how absolutely absurd most of the things “grown-ups” do are. Sunny, beautiful day… your inner child says “Go for a walk in the woods, sit on a stump, watch an ant for an hour.” and then the grow-up voice says “What, don’t be absurd, put on your tie, and head into the office, their important work to be done!” I’m glad my inner child survived adulthood, I think I’ll go sit on the stump.
I have a lot of strong feelings and beliefs, those of you who know me already are saying “Yup. Knew that.”; those of you who don’t know me will see. I love finding the highest place in the room and standing there, telling others what I think… but I also want to know what you think. Many a student has had me stand on their desk, but even more have been helped up onto their desk tops and been encouraged (or just allowed) to say what they think and believe. I can still remember the greatest bar in Oswego, NY, a kind of forest clubhouse miles from anything, Nunzi’s and that inside they had the uneven, randomly remaining stumps of trees with cushions and vinyl nailed to them as barstools. I can also remember standing on top of one of them as additional fans of the ridiculous stood on others as we yelled, sang, and ranted at each other, spilling cheap Genesee Beer out of our red or yellow plastic cups onto our maroon and white hoodies or onto the dirt floor.
It’s important to have places like a Nunzi’s, or a treehouse, or where ever you hold court, so long as it’s comfortable enough that you can express yourself. Be it Karasu in Konosu, Japan or my rooftop in Brooklyn, I’ve been quite lucky to have those places, and friends who would join me there.
I haven’t always been in places where I felt that comfortable. One of the reasons that I became a teacher was because of how often I hated school as a kid – I didn’t feel safe at school, and I didn’t want other kids to feel the way I had. After the bully that smashed my mouth, leaving only the stumps of my previously perfect front teeth remaining got off completely free with no punishment that I ever knew of, I realized that most institutions where pretty crappy places where good did not triumph and often evil (even if it was just small schoolyard bully evil) prevailed. I still see those stumps every morning in the mirror as a permanent reminder of what I will fight against.
One of my favorite authors from my childhood was Eric Sloane. He wrote books about a then vanishing (now vanished) rural America, and drew pen and ink illustrations that were both intricate and simple at the same time. I could get lost in those diagrams and drawings for hours, noticing new details or filling in the ones that weren’t there myself. Often the books had titles such as A Reverence for Wood, Our Vanishing Landscape, or American Barns and Covered Bridges, and they described the way that rural Americans worked with nature to live lives that while not exactly comfortable or free from hardship, were seemingly much more satisfying because of the opportunities for creativity, cooperation, and self reliance, than the life of the average American today. An image that always stuck with me was that of the “stump fence”. During the wettest part of the spring thaw, oxen would be hitched to a massive lever and fulcrum system to remove stumps from fields to be plowed, and often those stumps would be used as fences, put on their sides along pastures to keep livestock in or out, and apparently these stump fences could last for centuries, often being the only remaining remnants of long gone farms, ugly, yet still there marking the property lines belonging to the people who founded villages and towns and anonymously built America. When I get the chance to visit the rural parts of the east coast, such as the forrest behind my great uncle’s house, I still look for traces of those stump fences, traces of my country which have been almost completely forgotten and that most folks sadly would not even recognize if they happened to even notice a row of overturned stumps winding through a woods.
This is my stump, hopefully it will remain here for someone to notice, and perhaps, long after I have nothing left to give, maybe they’ll be able to sit here, rest and think for a while.