Institutional malarkey be damned… memories of Venice soothe my nerves. How long before a plane takes me far from here?
Other than the familiar retreat of walking or writing (or reading or photographing or cooking), teaching has been the cushion to soften reentry’s crash landing, one that is characterized less by violent or jerking movements and more by a persistent cloud of disorientation. I wrote in a letter to a friend the other day that it is in the space of teaching — one where I have the chance to also be a learner and fellow looker and seer — that I am speaking a language that I recognize and that makes sense to me. The procedural apparatus surrounding those moments is utterly foreign, at best, demoralizing, at worst. This is perhaps what marks last night’s class as especially moving — I take no credit for it except to thank myself for having the good sense to be in collaboration with thoughtful and humane people, two of whom shared stories and experiences with the students in the form of dialogue and an exercise (although to say “exercise” feels diminishing somehow) on reflection and seeing and, quite frankly, retaining one’s humanity in the midst of the seemingly intractable institutional morass.
On that note… Should the time come for me to resign — because at this rate, who knows if I’ll make it to retirement — I should like to think I can be as precise and concise as William Faulkner was in his letter of resignation from his position as postmaster, addressed to his superiors at the University of Mississippi:
As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.
This, sir, is my resignation.
For more, see Letters of Note.
Another urban oasis, this one tucked away on 53rd Street between Madison and 5th. The discovery got me thinking… and my curiosity was duly rewarded: New York’s Hidden Parks (although, technically this just covers Manhattan). Not bad for a 10-miler around the island.
Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.
— George Eliot
(I’m pretty sure I posted the same quote at the start of autumn, 2011; but I have no desire to mess with perfection.)
In my quest to learn to see the city — this city — again, I took a walk along the Hudson and took in the sights and activities that were elegantly lit by the setting sun. I only wish I had snaps of the sun bathing the burgundy and browned brickfronts along Riverside Drive just before disappearing into New Jersey. By the sky alone it is clear to see that Autumn is near.
(this one’s been in the hopper for a while, unfinished, because there was always more to add. it’s still not quite where i want it to be, and still unfinished, so i offer you here one part of a multi-part reflection that connects kerala with cyprus and the uk through the simple thread of human hospitality and the impetus for story-sharing)
What is your hyphenation?
This was the question posed to me during an exchange about identity markers, labels and categorizations — those that are asserted as well as those that are given. It was March and I was enjoying the warm embrace of Cyprus when this set of transnational interactions transpired via twitter direct messaging, and while in this island mecca I found myself, quite unexpectedly, invoking my recent trip to India with startling regularity — startling to me given that my ethnic origin is rarely on the tip of my tongue or the first site of reference. And yet, as I found myself in the company of my friend, the very lovely and peerlessly hospitable S, and her charming and incredibly warm family, I was immediately and frequently moved to share tales of my recent travels to India and the stories they evoked of memories and long-forgotten family traditions. Conversation in the form of story-sharing was the apt garnish to the preparing, consuming, and communing around food that characterized a large part of my time in Cyprus.
On my first night in Larnaca, the town where I spent three of my six nights in the island nation, I was taken to a restaurant that was known to S and her husband from the time of their youth; a place that despite the immediate blanket of low light that greets its visitors, is filled with brightly colored paintings and other artwork — some of which, S told me, were made by the owner herself, who greeted my hosts with an air of familiarity, not quite the intimacy of family but certainly not the reservation of strangers. So consumed with our conversation had I been, that I was literally caught off guard by the flavor of the tomatoes in the salad. Tomatoes! Fruit in vegetable’s clothing that I rarely, until that night, ate fresh because years of mealy, overripe, flavorless varieties had made a jaded tomato eater (read: avoider) out of me. Tomatoes were, until that night, strictly relegated to the sauté pan for stir fry or tomato sauce recipes.
It would not be an exaggeration to state, plainly and without hyperbole, that first taste of tomato was nothing short of a gustatory revelation. No, a revelation. Period.
The next night, with not-too-distant memories of a familiarly strange flavor on my mind, I was treated to a homemade dinner of two traditional Greek soups: Trahana, made with the dried and sour wheat cakes and halloumi cheese and a second soup made of lemon, egg, and rice, the name of which escapes me at the moment. Once prepared, the soups joined the salad, asparagus dish, a pastry-type appetizer, and bottle of wine already placed on the neatly set table around which S’s parents, brother and sister-in-law, spouse and little V had already gathered. As the soups and libation flowed, so, too, did the stories – of living in Larnaca, of being forced out of the now-Turkish occupied northern section of the island, of being a teacher in Cyprus – and the questions – how was I enjoying myself? Was I born in the United States? How often did I visit India? What was my plan for the week?
In this scenario, I was the linguistically disadvantaged one, with nearly zero Greek words in my language knapsack – it was just on this trip that I learned that “ne,” contrary to phonological leanings – means “yes” – and my hosts bridged our language gap with ease, sharing stories, asking questions, answering my questions, and making me feel completely at home. It was here when I was first aware that I was reaching into my deep stores of childhood memories and recent conversations with familiar and unfamiliar strangers while traveling through Kerala.
There is a kinship between these countries and its inhabitants that was rendered in the abundant offerings of food, in the understood practices of talking over one another to communicate a point, and found in the unspoken transitions between hospitality and communion. When learning about the preparation of food, I shared my own early experiences of learning to cook alongside whomever was in the kitchen – very often, this was my grandmother, who catered to my particular and fickle adolescent tastes. And no story of my grandmother is complete without the added detail that she was my very first roommate, personal storyteller, and witness to my earliest dream-state ramblings and pontifications.
The dining table is a gathering place, a get-to-know-you spot, a place in which to learn about the world and debate its great possibilities and unspeakable disappointments, a mantle on which to lay the intersecting storied histories each of us weaves.
We traversed the small but culturally expansive terrain, S and I, and stayed overnight in the mountain village of Kalopanayiotis. I fell in love with this tucked away cluster of homes and homestays much in the same way I was enchanted by the tea plantations and hills of Munnar. In both places, the roads twisted and wound their way from one side of the mountain to another. Unlike the “only in Kerala” imagery of construction happening (quite literally) at the speed of one grandmother carrying a large stone on her head at a time, Kalopanayiotis was even less hurried in its existence; and unlike the countless shacks and more makeshift housing structures found on the subcontinent, the Cypriot village homes that we saw all had doors and small gardens and, I suspected and fantasized, an endless supply of halloumi cheese in their refrigerators.
But places, no matter how picturesque, gain meaning and memory through the people who pass through them. And on the morning we were set to leave the village, S and I encountered a woman that I know neither of us will forget. She looked to be at least seventy – we later learned that she was well into her 80s – and was standing at the foot of a small bridge and holding a bag as we approached after visiting the nearby church. The grey of her hair that was half visible underneath the scarf that was tied around her head matched the shirt that was tucked into a long, black skirt that was topped a black apron – as if she had left her house with great urgency; I imagined food that was in the process of being cooked and wondered how long she had been in possession of her apron, acknowledging that it could might also just be a fashion statement.
Her smile was instant and grew even wider when she spotted S; she took a few steps forward and said hello and in Greek asked S if we were visiting the village. For the next few minutes, the two Cypriots talked and I could tell there were questions being asked and answers being proffered; S occasionally paused to translate for me in the middle of bemused laughter at this situation that would turn out to be a highlight – not only of this trip, but also of the sabbatical thus far. The animated chatter stopped abruptly and the woman linked her arm with S’s and began walking, with me following alongside them. As we walked, S quickly filled me in: the woman was newly widowed, her husband had passed away just 45 days ago and she was returning home from visiting his grave. When she learned I was visiting from America, she told S that her brother lives in San Diego, that she had visited him before, and that another brother makes his home in Madison, WI. It turned out that the brother in the Midwest was known to S and this instantly made her like kin to the old woman who insisted we accompany her to her home for some food and drink. There was no argument that would be worth launching in the face of such staunch conviction. For a woman in her eighties, she had an impressive gait that she did not break as she turned back and shouted to her friend Antigone that she had “found some company!” and was going home. (S translated this, as well, in between her own laughter at the woman’s joyous declaration.) Antigone, just a few years younger than her friend, it seemed, quickly followed suit.
Once we reached the woman’s home just steps away from the other side of the bridge, we were treated to an assortment of Greek sweets and pastries and homemade iced tea served to us by a younger woman who appeared to be a housekeeper, while our host shared photos of her children and grandchildren during momentous occasions in their lives – graduations, weddings, anniversaries. (I was involved in a rather peculiar exchange with the woman’s youngest son, which I will save for a future post as it contributes to my ongoing musings about how the world views the US.)
The offerings of food and stories and memories that were being made to us was reminiscent of the impromptu visit my travel companions (one of my parents and my spouse) and I had with an octogenarian living in the village where my grandmother spent her childhood. In fact, the woman lived next door to the home where my great-grandparents raised most of their sixteen children, only about half of whom survived to reach adulthood. My grandmother was the youngest daughter and she was closest in age and in communication with the brothers who were immediately older and younger than she. The woman answered our knock on the iron bars in front of her door verbally first before making her way to the entrance. She paused as she looked up and listened as we announced our presence and purpose of the visit. Once she had made the connection – that we were relatives, descendants of her one-time neighbors – she turned the lock and joined us on what amounted to her front porch (or stoop, depending on your geo-linguistic preference).
Dressed, as my spouse pointed out later, in her Wimbledon best, she instantly began to recall stories of my grandmother, her parents, and her siblings and their various comings and goings. As she talked and gesticulated and directed her attention alternatingly at each of us, she interrupted herself briefly to ask her nephew – who was visiting from Canada and who, dressed in sweatpants and a tee shirt was clearly not expecting visitors – to bring out bananas that were in her kitchen. He obliged and our protestations were in vain, and so we obediently consumed the mini-bananas that are indigenous to this and other warm climates, as we listened and laughed and allowed ourselves to be temporarily transported to another moment in time.
[end of Travelogue 3, Part 1. Part 2 coming soon… including tales about my great-grandparents, village hospitality, and how this all relates back to a peak hike in Sheffield via a discursive pitstop back in Larnaca.]
Charlie Chaplin was supposed to be performing silly gestures on the large screen in the auditorium. At least that’s what my classmates and I had been told by our teacher about the movie we were watching just before the winter break. Or was it the day before spring break? Does The Tramp have a designated season? No matter — he is only relevant to this story because of what he represents in the longer narrative about my ability to see. I was in the eighth grade, sitting on a wooden seat that folds down to accommodate the occupant, in one of several dozen rows filled with the thirteen and near-thirteen year olds, and as the film reel flickered high above us onto the wide screen on the stage, I was hit with a startling reality: I couldn’t see. The black and white masses bled into one another creating, in the wake of their forced union, pulsating figures of grey shapes for which no other name but “blob” would fit. What was Charlie doing? Was he dancing? Bouncing? Running away from comic villains? For half of the movie, I sat quietly, stunned by this realization — a combination of anger and bewilderment consumed me: hadn’t I been able to make out the details of Spartacus and Ben Hur that were shown just months earlier on the same screen? Had I been squinting then, too? (And no, I can’t quite explain my middle school’s penchant for showing impressionable schoolchildren epic-length films featuring aged or long-dead actors resurrecting the tales of ancient Rome.)
Once the stupefication wore off, I asked my teacher if I could visit the nurse’s office. I was thankful in that moment to have built up a lifetime of trust in the form of obedient student behavior. She let me walk myself there. I can’t remember whether I pushed or pulled the door, or whether there was a door at all, but I recall the nurse asking me to sit on a cold, metal stool, hold a spoon-shaped piece of thick plastic over each eye and read the letters arranged in lines of decreasing size from top to bottom on the opposite wall of her small office. My eyes failed me, let me down when I needed them the most. An eye test! And all I could read was the large E at the top of the chart.
Within days I was outfitted with contact lenses. The eye doctor I was taken to by my mother treated adults, mostly, and was convinced that I, being a teenager, would not want to wear glasses. He insisted, to my mother rather than to me, that I should just start wearing contacts from the beginning. I was torn. I had secretly harbored fantasies of being a proud owner of eyewear, and displaying such hardware in public. So on they went, these tiny, bendable, plastic saucers that were tinted just enough to be seen and handled, but not enough to affect the appearance of my dark brown irises. For those who haven’t worn contacts, the phrase, “You won’t be able to feel them” will seem like a bald faced lie. It isn’t. And just like that, these flexible plastic discs disappeared into — or rather onto my eyeballs and, barring a handful of incidents when one went missing somewhere into my eye socket, sight has been a managed and manageable part of my life. Laser eye surgery, with its promise of being able to wake up sighted, intrigued me, but only momentarily. At some point in my deliberations, I began to appreciate my less than 20-20 eyesight as a gift — the ability to not see, to obscure, to redouble my efforts in honing the other senses. The option to visually check out (an option I have selected on more than one occasion during group classes such as zumba — in other words: the ability to be aware without risking a glimpse at my lack of coordination).
To put it simply, I had a handle on my sight.
Oh, but the fates are funny and they play with the very things you not only hold dear, but take for granted.
Yesterday was a delightful day, an easy day spent in the company of friends and a visit to an enchanting bakery (that I will blog about later), that included hearing about interesting and thoughtful research about teaching and literacy taking place in Tanzania, and a stroll through the Upper West Side of Manhattan on the way to pick up my new glasses at a local eyewear retailer (a far cry from the old ones I had been relying on for evening reading, when my contact-wearing eyes would tire, the same that M said made me look like one of this country’s founders; this comparison was not made as a compliment). What happened when I slipped off my contacts and placed the new specs onto the bridge of my nose can only be explicated in the following hurriedly composed prose-poem:
The world is a funhouse, no mirror required.
Circles bend into oblongs,
pillars and buildings appear miniature,
and squares have not retained their structural integrity.
Turning my head quickly is only an option
If I don’t care about interrupting the path of an oncoming car,
or bike or passer-by.
The man at the counter sees me,
I am visibly reeling, trying to strike a balance between
giddiness at this strange sensation and
being perturbed at the possibility that my prescription
has been botched.
It takes a while to adjust, he says in my direction,
looking past me, and then
looking at me expectantly because he is ready to close out the account;
It’s because you just took off your contacts,
he tries to convince me.
Bollocks! I want to exclaim,
but then I remember I’m neither British nor
the protesting type.
At his request, I lean in toward him over the counter between us
and he assesses the fit.
They fit, he says. They look good on you.
I can’t disagree.
Another stroll around the store while he and his co-worker,
whose very short hair defers to her
shoulder length copper earrings,
keep an eye on me.
Blinded by my own vanity, I accept the glasses and
walk out the door onto the sidewalk
full of hurrying walkers who have no time for people
waiting for their eyes to adjust.
I know how they feel; I was one of them just ten minutes earlier.
Twenty-four hours have passed.
I feel my optic nerve. I don’t know what it’s doing,
but its presence on my consciousness is
But it’s the height that unnerves me the most.
The pavement below appears to be miles away,
I feel seven feet tall,
or what I assume a seven-foot-tall person might feel like,
less a sense of towering over things and more like
soaring, unbounded, or
not merely inches, but whole feet above the ground.
This part I like.
I’m going to give it a week.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to embrace my inner Gulliver,
in this suddenly-new, Lilliputian landscape.
“Read widely, read enthusiastically, be guided by instinct and not design. For if you read, you need not become a writer; but if you hope to become a writer, you must read.”
— Joyce Carol Oates
from The Faith of a Writer
Between Going and Coming
by Octavio Paz
Between going and staying
the day wavers,
in love with its own transparency.
The circular afternoon is now a bay
where the world in stillness rocks.
All is visible and all elusive,
all is near and can’t be touched.
Paper, book, pencil, glass,
rest in the shade of their names.
Time throbbing in my temples repeats
the same unchanging syllable of blood.
The light turns the indifferent wall
into a ghostly theater of reflections.
I find myself in the middle of an eye,
watching myself in its blank stare.
The moment scatters. Motionless,
I stay and go: I am a pause.
“What is your earliest memory?” — these were the words embroidered onto a square pillow at the center of a photograph posted by Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade or vintage goods. More often than not, Etsy posts offer both commerce and food for thought and this time was no exception.
Austerlitz, the last book of W. G. Sebald, is a narrative dissection of human memory.
This is the opening line from an article by Jens Brockmeier titled “Austerlitz’s Memory” in which he explores the author’s narrative style that brings forth memory in unsettling ways. In Austerlitz, Sebald is once again explicating quotidian realities that undergo changes, both subtle and seismic, as Nazi rule upended, evacuated or extinguished the lives of German Jews who had, for so long, been citizens of the very landscapes in which they had become the focus of persecution. Of this now-quintessential Sebaldian prose, Brockmeier writes:
No doubt, Austerlitz demands a serious reader who follows attentively a meandering syntax without clear paragraph structure, a peculiar mixture of the narrative voices of the protagonist and the narrator, several layers of free indirect thought and discourse, and wide-ranging associative chains that encompass extensive accounts of very specific details that may or may not contribute to a labyrinthine plot, if we can call it a plot at all.
For these two German authors, writing at different times, one (Brockmeier) in response to the words of another (Sebald), himself consumed with the responsibility to communicate affectively and still somewhat dispassionately — but not without effecting the reader, nor, I suspect, himself — the narrativized life of a character whose history embodies events experienced by many others living and growing up in the time of World War 2 … these are great burdens to carry, let along to represent in story.
Sebald’s writing provokes a question in me about the significance of poetics and narrative — what if the subject matter is ugly? How does one write beautiful prose about horrific events? The filmmakers of the documentary War Dance — that follows the lives of children who are recruited to become soldiers in Uganda (as part of the L.R.A.), some of whom have barely reached adolescence — during a panel about beauty in film, wrestled with a similar question: “How do you make a beautiful film about a difficult and deeply upsetting topic?” And the film, both narratively and visually, is stunning.
We ought to remember, of course, that some of our memories are not even our own. They have been given to us, pre-wrapped and fully assembled; yet even these take on new veneers with each retelling. Brockmeier has studied Sebald’s writing, particularly the careful attention with which the latter crafts the nature of remembrance:
The prose of Austerlitz intermingles fact (or apparent fact), recollection (or apparent recollection), and fiction (or apparent fiction), making them indistinguishable. What interests me, however, is not the challenge this prose poses for the critical, narratological, and epistemological reflection of these borderlines, but something else: in blurring the borderlines be- tween the documentary and the fictional Sebald seems to come as close as possible to tracing the dynamics of remembering and forgetting.
Remembering is intimately tied to forgetting; I think often of dreams I can’t remember.
In her Nobel Lecture delivered in December of 1993, Toni Morrison reminded her audience of a simple and awesome truth, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
My earliest memory is tethered to storytelling — of listening to stories, of lining up my toys to listen to my stories, of constructing tales about my very origin. Another memory, that I am convinced is more mine than given to me by others, focuses on an exchange I had with my grandmother about purchasing $.25 root beer from the vending machine with neighborhood friends with whom I recall spending large blocks of time while my family and I lived in an apartment complex soon after immigrating to the States; this was less of a conversation than an ardent pitch to convince my older namesake that root beer was not, in fact, a version of beer.
These recollections are always of summertime, of heat, of feeling the hot concrete underneath my feet while walking barefoot along the swimming pool, of riding Hot Wheels and racing miniature cars, of being admonished for having friends of both genders, of learning to speak English but not being hampered by my limited language proficiency, of being four turning five.
But these are the linguistic memories, preserved in my mind as storied chunks; I’m not sure what the earliest sentient or embodied ones are, but I do know that I am soothed by the rhythm of a rocking chair or moving train.
I am rereading Sebald alongside Brockmeier now, in part as a way to return to an essay I began last summer and in part to hold on to the glimpses of my own humanity that I re-discovered in this past year; as a promise to do something, to do language justly, to live purposefully.
Tucked away on East 51st street.
A perfect spot to enjoy a steaming hot, freshly baked, 9-grain Ess-a-bagel with M.
Each August, before the start of the coming school year, while my parents were busy reminding my siblings and me about the importance of doing well in school and making sure each of us was equipped with the necessary accoutrements to face the coming onslaught of new subjects and homework and a surefire method for covering books with brown paper shopping bags, my mind was fixated on notebooks. It must be that the organization of one’s class notes is drilled into children’s minds from an early age because it was the decision that caused me the most anxiety. One multi-subject notebook? Several single-subject notebooks? Loose leaf paper that could be inserted into a neatly organized binder, ready with tabs for each subject? Different colors or the same? Spiral or composition style? I remained unsettled in this annual mental juggernaut for as long as I was allowed, ultimately making the decision at various points throughout my life to try out all of the above configurations. The only decision that has remained consistent for most of my post-pre-teen years is the commitment to college-ruled rather than wide-ruled paper; all bets are off, of course, on the occasions when I choose no rule at all.
This past week, many children in the northeast and many other parts of the country returned to school. They joined their counterparts in warmer climates who were entering their second month of the new year. Following my anxiety-ridden post earlier this week, I was launched into a schedule that unwittingly became a repetitive chorus of 12-14 hour days. Meetings blended into more meetings — in offices, the hallway, impromptu caucusing on the way into and out of the bathroom; and students with whom I hadn’t spoken in a long while aired their welcomes peppered with grievances, while incoming students wove anxiety and confusion into their enthusiasm. Orientation was a blur and I’m not entirely sure what I said or did, other than that I forgot to include more than a few pieces of crucial information. But what is really crucial? What are these men and women doing in a graduate program? How is it that they find themselves here, or there, that is, in that not-too-warm room while the air conditioning unit hanging out of the window high above the room whirred and occasionally grunted as my colleagues and I performed our annual ritual of autobiographical storytelling.
Suddenly, it was my turn. And my only thought, as the fifty new faces focused on me, was that exactly one year ago I had been on my way from Tasmania to Sydney. No, that wouldn’t do. I am [insert my name here], I started to say. And I teach [these courses] and my research is [about this]. And then, as I had done in the beginning of the hourlong program orientation, I welcomed them, and reassured them about their decision to enroll in our program. It was the latter that they needed to hear.
This week was also marked by the news coverage of the Democratic National Convention, as nearly everyone is jabbering about Bill Clinton’s stemwinder. I say that word now with a false ease; until the surplus of speech-related commentaries that saturated every media space following his DNC moment, I really had never heard it before. Or perhaps it’s fair to say that I had never taken notice of the word. (Who can really say for sure that they have never heard of a word, for we hear much of which we take little notice.) Is it really surprising that our former president lingered on the stage, in his inimitable way of captivating a crowd while explaining policy tedium, for near fifty minutes?
A report claims that Clinton admitted to Sandra Fluke, after he congratulated her for her speech, that he was nervous before taking the stage for his. “Sir. Please.” she is quoted as saying in response. But I can believe it.
This strange phase of reentry is overwhelmingly marked by what it is not and what it is missing: slowness, stillness, solitude, silence. These are not my words. That is to say that while I had felt a renewed kinship to these words throughout the past year, I had not said them out loud, all together, to anyone. They were shared with me by a colleague who I saw in the hallway after we had each finished teaching our first class. Both of us had also just finished a year of sabbatical. In the screaming mess of details and minutiae that was swirling around us, particularly at the beginning of the academic year, those twenty minutes in the hallway felt like what I imagine the experience of floating to be: time suspended, an unfettered sensation, yet not all together away from this earth, but temporarily free from the leaden feet we wear to keep ourselves tethered.
She said it out loud: nervous. She was nervous. I was nervous. About expectations, about holding on to what felt so natural for the past year, about finding a way to fit in without becoming the versions of ourselves that were so of this world… in which, somehow, the details not only mattered, but became all consuming, or worse: character defining. To live and work without giving in to the quotidian urgencies that insist on churning out products — forms, email responses, and more. [deleted: some thoughts that bordered too much on whining. That is a definite don’t for this space.]
Much was made of the fact that Clinton ad-libbed many parts of the address delivered to the convention delegates in Charlotte, North Carolina — speaking nearly 5200 words while his prepared remarks were only around 2900 words. He fulfilled his role, his obligations, his expectations… his way. Of course he was experiencing some nerves beforehand. He has the tricky role — or is it fortunate irony? unfortunate challenge? — of being seen as both establishment and maverick.
Slippage into the expected is all too easy.
This year, prepared with a stock of 6×8 lined notebooks and the soliloquy of a stemwinder I’ve been narrating for myself as a form of accidental therapy to treat the previous years of academic pathology, I’m going to remind myself to go off-prompter more than occasionally. I suspect it’s the only way I’ll survive.
The hour is late, although I suspect a few more will pass before I can surrender to sweet slumber — and even that will feel like too little, as the alarm is set to twinkle well before what seems like a humane wake up time. L and I were talking this weekend about the ever alluring “else” — that is, what else we’d be doing if not this. The “else” game is intoxicating and one that cannot be kept at bay when the hours that spill out in front of you are unfettered for days on end. But now, the “else” game feels like a punishment. Still, we played. There were other “wheres” that came with ease, but as for “what”… despite a year-plus spent pondering this very question, I came up empty. Initially. I realize that within mere hours of returning to campus, I had been transported back into the rhythms of others — ones that were tuned to manic frequencies, with every beat seemingly consequential, each transition or hiccup leading only closer to an impenetrable wall of agitation.
Tonight, on the eve of the new school year, I settle once again into the realization that is strangely comforting: this is exactly what I would be doing. Almost. I would eliminate all of the administrative duties, the negotiating of adult petulance (for which I have little patience and even less sympathy), and abolish most of the meetings that are currently mandated, if not by force then certainly by social pressure.
But the bulk of this gig I would want to continue — some of the teaching and especially the research that affords time spent with young people which yields stories about which I do want to continue composing artifacts and narratives.
But if I had my druthers I would do less and limit the extent to which I had to manage projects and be instead steeped in the doing — doing the work rather than talking about the work (which can also be the work, itself… sometimes). (However, with great power… or so the saying goes…)
My delusions are not of grandeur but rather of increased simplicity.
Perhaps in a society that swallows whole ideas like the four-hour work week and obsesses over talent as a commodity more desirable than consistency or effort, doing less and simplicity are counterintuitive. Doing less is swiftly translated into decreased revenue and fewer luxuries, not only for the self but also for those to whom and for whom you may be responsible or answerable.
Immediately my mind drifts to the documentary series “Alone in the Wilderness” that chronicles the experiences of Dick Proenneke while he is living in the Alaskan outdoors. Over the course of countless pledge drives on PBS (the public broadcasting service in the US), I have watched the entire series at least a few times, and each time I catch a glimpse, I stop — mid-sentence, mid-phone call, while drying dishes — and listen to his tales of not merely surviving, but living off of the land. Proenneke films and narrates while also living the experiences about which he is crafting stories. This video excerpt below, that comes from the second video in the series, documents Proenneke’s return to the cabin he had built a year earlier. Simply put, he takes his leave of the civilization with which he was familiar to pursue nature’s beckoning calls. For extended periods of time. Away from the everyday. To something else.
Proenneke also sets out on a new life after the age of 50, like Duncan E. Slade’s turn to art education. (I’m making a mental note to pay extra attention when my 50th birthday rolls around for whatever life changes come my way.) His narration is unhurried, keeping in harmony with his patient practice of living in the wilderness.
So I’ll seek out unhurried but purposeful ways to be responsive as new students share their anxieties or as colleagues threaten to spiral deep into their own frustrations. I suspect a visit or two to Dick’s cabin couldn’t hurt, either.
Happy new year!
My office should be declared an archaeological dig site.
I have spent the better part of two hours doing nothing but excavating, occasionally — ok, frequently dusting off folders, books, questionable objects that have not been used or moved in over a year, despite the use of my office by people who were holding together the many loose ends I left when I walked away from campus last summer. Midway through the year I learned that my bookshelves were being used as the backdrop for faculty and student video profiles that were filmed in my office, which explains why there was a large white umbrella in taking up residence in here when I popped in last spring.
Finally, the over-eighteen-inch high pile of papers has been sorted through. Most of it is filling the newly emptied green, plastic, recyclables receptacle in our office suite — and most of it was packaging: envelopes, filler advertisements, plastic wrapping for journal issues, bubble wrap, and more envelopes. I heard forests cringing all around me, their cries cutting through the crooning tunes courtesy of my Carole King & James Taylor Pandora station.
What stayed: copies of research participant permissions that were not filed before I left; copies of grant reports and related materials; journal issues that I have not yet looked through and the ones that contain pieces I have authored or co-authored;
Among the very special finds was a 2009 calendar that features the paintings of life in small town Norway, Maine, all painted by the then-90+ year old Duncan E. Slade. I had spent a week in Maine with my in-laws the previous summer that had included a visit to Slade’s studio, where I first learned about underpaintings, and about the artist’s life, including his decision to pursue a career in teaching at the age of 51. The four of us — Slade, my in-laws, and I — spent the better part of an hour talking about these and a range of other topics, including the strange symbiosis that exists between Philadelphia and Maine. At some point, my in-laws must have gone back into town and had the artist sign the calendar for me, which they presented to me the following Christmas. Gems, all of them. So I let myself take a few minutes to look through the calendar that included this painting for October that speaks to me loudly any time of year.
And then, quite unexpectedly, a piece of notebook paper fell onto the wobbly table top below me. I recognized the handwriting immediately. The rounded letters written in black ball point stood out and coaxed their neighbors to bend slightly, too. Capital letters mixed with lower case throughout this note that was written by one of the secretaries in a different program, whom I had gotten to know when I first arrived at my university. She was a sharer of stories, a sister, a grandmother, ready with a warm embrace, an infectious smile and sweet voice that belied her wicked wit. Walking past and seeing her in the doorway was always a highlight, an excuse to exchange laughter, momentary and agenda-free respites from what can feel like intractable mania. The last time I saw her, the familiar sturdy gait with which she would amble slowly and deliberately through the school halls, had been stripped away in a manner that only life-stripping diseases can do. Her carefully coifed salt and pepper hair was replaced by a closely cropped head of small curls. Thick glasses were a permanent fixture on her face, and they allowed me to recognize her when I attended the farewell luncheon being given in her honor last summer. She was surrounded by people and chatter and food and others who, like me, also hadn’t known the full extent of her illness.
In the letter, she references a conversation in which we discussed her grandson, about whom she was concerned and spoke of often. Hers is a letter of thanks, and she concludes her thoughts in this way:
“I (we, my [dept] coworkers) respect you so much. … Don’t let anything or anyone change you — It’s important to your students and to those with whom you interact. Respectfully, I—–“
Oh, but dear I… you changed me. With your beauty, your grace, your persistence, and caring. And I am ever thankful for that.
And now, back to the big dig.