What Poetry Doesn’t Tell You

Ok, this morning’s earlier post was the public story, but as you might of guessed, there’s a private story lurking behind it. Or more accurately, a story “Formerly Known as Private,” since I’m about to tell it. The public story was proper and tidy. This story is going to be messy, because I’ve just gotta get it down and then get on with grading all those papers.

What set off the explosion of gloom I alluded to was simply a bombed class. I had high hopes for a fun, lively debate about Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (an overturned urinal), William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say” (a refrigerator note), and the limits of art and poetry. But whether I pitched it wrong, blithered on too long, or failed to account for the dreary weather, my students wouldn’t play. I called on one, wrapped up in her shawl, who confessed she’d been falling asleep. Later, I called on another, who had lost track of the discussion because he was reading his classmate’s blog post.

Don’t make excuses for me: these are the telltale signs of poor teaching. Which means I suck as a teacher and the class is a failure. I can see the rest of the semester trailing ahead as the barometer of student engagement continues to fall steadily, relentlessly. One corner of mind flings about wildly for ingenious games and activities I might use to win them back, while the other sulks in despair, contemplating early retirement.

Thanks in part to writing this blog, I’ve learned to recognize that when I find myself caught in such cycles of self-loathing and recrimination, there is usually something deeper contributing to my distress. For the past few years, that something has been grief about my losing my Mom, which is apparently a pain so unfathomable that I can’t confront it directly. Until I dig it out of hiding, I remain tangled in exhausting spirals of anxious thinking.

The pattern is now familiar, and it didn’t take much digging this time. I knew right away that my over-reaction to a bad class was triggered by my Dad’s announcement that he and his new lady-friend Ruth were planning to move in together. This isn’t a secret or a surprise: Dad has brought Ruth to church, introduced her to my siblings and their families, and taken her out to dinner with his closest friends. By all accounts, she is a lovely person. Although I haven’t met her yet, Dad told me about her, and I knew things were headed in this direction. Still, the news hit me with a wallop, and it didn’t help that he made the announcement by e-mail.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no objection to the lady-friend or even to the apartment-share. A little over a year ago, when Mom turned catatonic and was lingering on her deathbed, I secretly hoped that Dad would find a lady-friend to keep him company and hold his hand. Actually, I didn’t even keep my hope secret: I told Dad he had my blessing.

Retrospectively, I think that what I really wanted was relief from his misery—relief for me, perhaps, more than for him. It was so hard to see him weeping and wracked with grief. I felt awkward and helpless. It was much more pleasant to imagine him enjoying the companionship of a new lady friend—and much less of a responsibility for me.

At the time, Dad couldn’t even fathom my suggestion, and he grieved so hard all year that I decided that maybe he would do so for the rest of his life—that being wedded to Mom was his identity and life calling. So when he told me his feelings for Ruth had turned romantic, I felt my guts lurch. Why? Rationally, I knew Ruth could never replace Mom in our hearts, and she has no desire to do so. I was happy for Dad—I’m happy for them both that they’ve found each other. Yet in the days following his revelation, I was swept over by waves of grief, missing Mom more than ever, wanting to call her, talk to her, and have her back in my life.

It seems too fast for my grieving heart that their relationship has moved so quickly from romance to live-in partnership, but who am I to judge time for septuagenarians? If they were in their twenties and had their whole lives unfolding before them, maybe it would be appropriate for me to caution them to slow down. But I don’t sit at the seat of 75; what seems fast to me at 49 may seem to them like wasted precious time.

I’m trying to take a broad view, one that encompasses my own grief, acknowledges Dad’s and Ruth’s perspective, and incorporates my 14-year-old son’s point of view (but excludes my shitty teaching). When we told Zac that Granu had a new girlfriend and they might be moving in together, he smiled and said: “Good for him. It was a lot harder to see him suffering than it would be to see him happy with a new girlfriend.” He’s right. Good for him is good for us, too. I’m pretty sure Mom would smile and say the same thing.



2 Responses to “What Poetry Doesn’t Tell You”

  1. Amy Diamond says:

    I have been there. It hurts. Not only did I lose my mom I lost my home. At 21 I had no base.
    But I am generous enough to say it gave my dad 16 happy years. And when they decided to divorce it was the right thing to do. As they aged they wanted to be with their biological family.

    You write beautifully

  2. Christine Marshall says:

    This post is so wonderfully and comically self-aware (as if you could ever suck as a teacher!) as it tracks the strange way our brains camouflage our despairs. It’s brave to recognize your patterns and to write about such painful things– thanks for teaching your readers what it looks like to be honest and real.

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