About

At the Edge of the Blackboard

I’ve been this way for a long time.

I remember a day in middle school when Mr. O’Dell, our social studies teacher, drew a line on the blackboard with the numbers 1 and 7 at each end.  He asked where we would place ourselves on the line in terms of our religious beliefs.  We went up and down the rows, each of us giving a number.  There were lots of 3’s, 4’s and 5’s. 

It was always interesting in Mr. O’Dell’s class.  He would lean back in his wooden chair, creaking the massive spring, and entertain us with stories from history or from life.  He wanted to engage us, he wanted us to care.  

Jeff Mitzel sat in the far left row under the tall windows of that old building and said firmly “1.”  He seemed confident in his answer.  He had always been an intellectual sort and I guess that included atheism.  Mr. O’Dell smiled and marked his spot on the line.

I felt that something was off, that the others could not be this middling about this question, could not be unthoughtful and passionless about the only question that really mattered, that mattered more than the French and Indian War, or the export crops of South American Countries, or how Cortez fought the Aztecs.  This was the question of who are we, why we’re here, and how do we fathom the fact that we exist at all and can look at a blackboard to ponder ourselves on a scale of 1 to 7.  Only Jeff had a definite answer.

When it came to me, I said loudly, “27.”  People snickered.  It was true I wanted a reaction, but I was serious too.  I had felt the power of a loving presence in my boyhood church and I was glad it had a name, which at the time I called God.  Mr. O’Dell smiled again, turned with his chalk, and put a mark at the far edge of the blackboard.

I feel that’s where I’ve been ever since. 

The universe has always welcomed me into a hole off to the side.  I wonder about things askew, entering doors that open sideways, falling through mental staircases where the steps should be.  Sometimes it seems as if I am floating in a parallel dimension where I catch glimpses of a shimmering just below the surface.  When I can touch the shimmering, the world starts to breathe, becomes more real, vivid, carries a living weight it does not have at the surface.  

I used to think I was alone at the edge of the blackboard, feeling with my hands along the trim for something solid.  But in the arena of religious belief (well, that was the language Mr. O’Dell used back then) solidity can be elusive.  The simple answers you can state with confidence like “1” or “27,” fall away.  And things that seem weightless – silence, sitting, waiting, yearning, space, light, presence – all become more solid, just not in ways that you can shout. 

But if you spend enough time along the edge, you find that there are others like you, many others, who don’t shout confident answers but who trust the question.  Who care so deeply about the question that they are willing to stay at the edge and look, and in that looking, find something solid. 

Maybe you, too, have felt alone at the edge of the blackboard, have seen the shimmering that approaches and recedes but never stays for long.  What is this thing we’re searching for?  I could call it meaning, or ultimate reality, or maybe this – a way of knowing there are things I can count on to be true, that will be there in the morning, or in the next season. 

When I was younger, I thought the goal was to find the right answer.  I didn’t know that the nature of answers is that they change.  Not because the truth changes, but because the windows we look through change. I’m still looking, learning as I go, writing about consciousness, human nature and our common impulse for connection to the Sacred and the wisdom of our higher self. 

That’s why I am drawn to the path of the modern mystic.

I hope you’ll join me on the adventure.  The road to wisdom is made up of small, persistent steps. The big questions are less daunting when we break them into smaller pieces. Not “What is the meaning of life,” but “Am I seeing clearly what is in front of me? How can I engage it wisely, lovingly?”

Maybe along the way, we’ll find something useful together.  And maybe a better answer to Mr. O’Dell’s question.

Steve Sphar

steve@stumblingmystic.com

Photo by Hope Harris, hopeharrisphotography.com/