This morning’s newspaper headlines the N. C. General Assembly’s last minute power grab to limit the already restricted powers of Democratic Governor-elect Roy Cooper. The Republicans are defending their actions, saying the Democrats “did it first” 20 and 40 years ago. Colin Campbell reports:
“House Bill 17, which legislators approved Friday, would limit the number of state employees the governor can hire and fire to 425. The current limit is 1,500 and was increased from 400 around the time Republican Gov. Pat McCrory took office.”
Another red flag flew up when I turned the page to this political cartoon by Tom Toles of the Washington Post:
In March 1938, Germany invades and annexes Austria. With no appetite for another war, Britain looks away. Tensions escalate. Just when Great Britain seems on the cusp of war, reprieve comes in the form of an agreement by Hitler to hold a diplomatic conference at Munich. There, on September 23, 1938, representatives from Germany, Italy, France, and Britain sign the Munich Agreement. Czechoslovakia was not invited to the talks.
The next day, Hitler and Chamberlain sign a separate Anglo-German Declaration of their own. Chamberlain flies home to England and declares:
“We have achieved peace in our time.”
Soon after Chamberlain’s return to England, Germany seizes Czechoslovakia, and a year later invades Poland.
Chamberlain’s famously false declaration of “peace in our time” comes from his “Radio Speech to the British People,” delivered on September 27, 1938, in which he reports on his talks with Hitler regarding Germany’s territorial claims on Czechoslovakia. It’s worth examining his rhetoric of appeasement more closely.
Chamberlain acknowledges “the present anxious and critical situation” and “growing anxiety” about another world war:
“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
“Yet I believe after my talks with Herr Hitler that, if only time were allowed, it ought to be possible for the arrangements for transferring the territory that the Czech government has agreed to give to Germany to be settled by agreement under conditions which would assure fair treatment to the population concerned.”
“For the present I ask you to await as calmly as you can the events of the next few days. As long as war has not begun, there is always hope that it may be prevented, and you know that I am going to work for peace to the last moment. Good night.”
Notice how Chamberlain distances Britain from Europe, trying to reassure people that things aren’t as bad as they seem, and that surely Hitler will be just and appropriate in his political and military actions.
W. H. Auden wasn’t reassured. In fact, he was as troubled by British appeasement as he was by German aggression. He expressed his concerns obliquely, in a poem called “Musée des Beaux Arts.”
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Auden wrote this poem in December 1938, while staying in Brussels, Belgium with his lover, Christopher Isherwood. While there, he visited the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique and saw its collection of Early Netherlandish painting, including “Old Masters” such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569). The speaker of the poem strolls by a series of paintings, pausing to reflect on Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.
In both the poem and the painting, suffering happens elsewhere, off in “in a corner, some untidy spot” of the world distant from us. You scarcely notice the flailing legs of Icarus in the bottom right corner of the painting, your eyes drawn to the central figure of the plowman, who looks down at the ground, focused on his work. Like the speaker, he is “just walking dully along,” scarcely attending to a drama of mythical proportions unfolding beside him. “The ploughman may / Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, /But for him it was not an important failure.” He “Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on”—not unlike Republican leaders today, who overlook impending disaster, focused on immediate goals of consolidating their own power. And sadly, not unlike me, who though opposed to current political trends, find it all to easy to go on with my doggy life, focused on the business of everyday life.
Auden’s poem responds to escalating political tensions and events in Europe by looking back, indirectly through art from long ago and far away, at his own nation’s response, examining the moral consequences of appeasement. And in that indirection, Auden both mirrors and critiques evasive political discourse. He doesn’t stand outside or above the problem; he acknowledges that he’s part of it. As a poet, he’s just as guilty of evasion and accommodation, finding it just as difficult to confront the political crisis directly and feeling helpless to do anything about it.
“Of suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters”—and the old poets, too. Even as Auden acknowledges how difficult it is to remain focused and vigilant, he reminds us to pay attention. In the the familiarity of his colloquial language, the sharpness of his description, and the subtlety of his analysis, he awakens our attention. He makes us think again about the risks of appeasement and accommodation and the moral consequences of ignoring the suffering of others.
Chamberlain, Neville. “Radio Speech to the British People” (September 1938). The Past Speaks: Sources and Problems in British History. Volume II: Since 1688. 2nd edition. Lexington, MA, and Toronto: D. C. Heath & Co., 1993. 368-370.
“The Munich Agreement and the Anglo-German Declaration (September 1938). The Past Speaks: Sources and Problems in British History. Volume II: Since 1688. 2nd edition. Lexington, MA, and Toronto: D. C. Heath & Co., 1993. 370-71.
I haven’t posted on this blog in months. Now that Mom’s gone and Dad’s remarried, I get an occasional urge to write, but lack the urgency.
…until this week, when the triumph of Trump convulsed me from low-grade anxiety to a fever pitch of terror and sadness. On Tuesday, November 8, 2016, I went to bed at 9:50 pm, unable to watch what already appeared inevitable. I tossed and turned in bed, my feet cramping. I tried to reassure myself that more than 50% of Americans can’t be bad or wholly wrong. I tried to breathe and adopt a mindfulness mentality and open my heart to greater trust and understanding.
Spoiler alert: none of these strategies are particularly effective at 3 a.m.
As morning dawned, I shuddered from my routine listening to NPR and reading the paper. Instead I trolled Facebook, relying on friends to direct me to articles, editorials, and blogposts that could help me make sense of this senseless turn of events.
Soon I turned to poetry. The first lines that came to mind were from W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939“:
All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.
Auden wrote the poem at the outbreak of World War II, while sitting in a New York city gay bar, feeling maudlin and melancholic. Soon after publishing the poem, he disavowed it, probably because he felt embarrassed by its unabashed sentimentality and certainty. “We must love one another or die” is such a satisfying line—which is probably why Auden rejected it. It’s too gratifying. The stanza winds its way along a twisted path of physical images (“the sensual man in the street,” “buildings grope the sky”) and ambiguous abstractions (“romantic lie in the brain,” “no such thing as the State”). What does that mean? How can there be “no such thing as the State” when Fascism is marching across Europe? Never mind, the stanza rollicks to a close with its unequivocal affirmation of love, dispelling ambiguity with an easy, satisfying solution.
Although the line offers a reassuring (if guilty) pleasure in a time of dramatic uncertainty, it’s not the one I was drawn to. The words that echoed in my head were: “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie.” I felt lost, afraid, and powerless, and these lines suggested a way forward, encouraging me to speak out and undo the folded lies of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and bigotry.
Auden probably would cringe at such an earnest embrace of his words. He was a poet of ambivalence, as driven by political conviction as he was by skepticism about the poet’s ability to effect change. “For poetry makes nothing happen,” he famously declared in his poem, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” People love to quote that line as an unequivocal disavowal of poetry, but they neglect what comes after:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its making where executives Would never want to tamper, flows on south From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, A way of happening, a mouth.
Sure, “poetry makes nothing happen,” especially in the modern age. It doesn’t launch a thousand ships or incite countries to war. Yet “it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.” Poetry is an ongoing response to loneliness (“ranches of isolation”) and loss (“busy griefs”). It doesn’t make things happen, but helps us live through their happening. It’s “a mouth” that enables us, literally, to come to terms with the chaos of our lives and extract meaning from the wreckage.
By Saturday morning, my terror had abated to a stunned recognition that the world hadn’t, in fact, ended. Undocumented people hadn’t been rounded up, marriage equality and reproductive rights hadn’t been revoked, and international environmental protections hadn’t been retracted. But all this could happen, and probably will, when Trump takes office. And who knows what will happen in terms of international diplomacy? How long will it take Putin, Kim Jong-Un, or IS to provoke Trump into flexing his military muscles? Two of our sons are already registered for the draft and the other is only 3 years from having to do so.
I drove the boys to a soccer tournament. After the game, we went to iHop, along with seemingly half the population of Rock Hill. It was a diverse crowd of diners, all eating piles of pancakes in harmony, seemingly indifferent to the imminent apocalypse. I thought of another Auden poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening“:
‘O look, look in the mirror, O look in your distress: Life remains a blessing Although you cannot bless. ‘O stand, stand at the window As the tears scald and start; You shall love your crooked neighbour With your crooked heart.'
In Auden’s homoerotic codes of desire, “crooked” signals homosexuality. What makes this poem resonate for me today is that it still has that valence, and also connotes “crooked Hillary.” The lines also remind me to try to love even those neighbors whose attitudes and beliefs I find truly crooked—the Trump supporters. And that’s a taller order.
Lest you think you’ve come to some reassuring and satisfying conclusion about loving thy neighbor, bear in mind that Auden gives those lines to the clocks that “whirr and chime.” Can we really trust mechanical instruments to teach us how to live humane lives? Auden maintains an ironic distance from any certainty that love trumps hate.
We should be wary, too. We should be skeptical of the calls to move beyond the divisiveness of the campaign, to join hands in unity and remember that “good people voted for Trump.” Undoubtedly, good people did vote for Trump, people who were not consciously motivated by racism or sexism, and who believed they had good reasons for voting for Trump. They must have believed that their reasons were more important than resisting racism, sexism, bigotry, bullying, greed, and ignorance. They didn’t support racism. But they also didn’t have to think about it. Maybe they were sick of thinking about it.
Here’s where I’m haunted by another poem, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. Rankine began the poem as a critique of the Bush administration (2000 – 2008). In lyrical prose, she reflects on how it feels to live in a country whose optimism for the future is greater than its concern about racism in the present day:
When I think about all those good people who voted for Trump, a voice swells and fills my forehead: “You don’t know because you don’t care. Do you?” You don’t have to care about racial injustice because you are white. You don’t have to care about undocumented people because you are lucky enough to be a citizen. You don’t have to care about the prison industrial complex because you’re not likely to be stopped, frisked, arrested, or jailed. You don’t have to care about marriage equality because you don’t stand to lose the 15 federal benefits of legal marriage, including parental custody and next-of-kin status. You don’t have to care about environmental protections because you can afford to water your lawn and turn up your AC.
As a white, documented, cis-gendered, legally married American citizen, homeowner, and professor with tenure and health insurance, I don’t have to care either. As my Republican brother reminds me, I also don’t have to worry about unemployment, stagnant minimum wage earnings, or diminishing career prospects, which are the genuine concerns of the white working class voters who helped elect Trump. These people aren’t stupid, and they have real fears about the future and legitimate gripes about the way they’ve been ignored. But are their diminished economic prospects a result of undocumented workers streaming in from Mexico, or of a widening gap between the very wealthy and the rest of Americans? Will lower taxes, the repeal of Obamacare, and a Great Trump Wall really help them?
I don’t know the answers. “I forget things too.” But I cannot forget and will not forget my sadness that billions of lives don’t seem to matter. I will not join hands and cooperate or compromise with policies that do further damage to the lives of the most vulnerable members of our society.
All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie that the rhetoric and policies touted by Trump will “Make America Great Again.” Last night, a candidate for a new, joint tenure track position in Africana Studies and English offered an alternative slogan, which he learned from a student: “Make America Think Again.” Poetry may make nothing happen, but it does make us think. So maybe it can help us make America think again.
If you disagree with me, please comment. Think out loud.
P. S. If you want to read some more poems that speak to our current predicament, check out the ones Austin Kleon gathers in this week’s newsletter, especially Emily Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark,” Langston Hughes’ “Evil,” and Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones.”
Apologies for this rough post, but I don’t have much time before I have to catch my shuttle to the airport. I’m in Victoria at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, taking a course with David Hoover (NYU) called “Out of the Box Text Analysis.” All week, I’ve been trying to work through my own skepticism about whether:
- computerized analysis of literary texts merely confirms/denies what we already know;
- the results are interesting and valuable enough to justify the tedious work of prepping the texts;
- we come up with reasons to justify the results so that they confirm what we already think about an author;
- these new, high-tech intellectual exercises serve as a way to justify talking about the same old texts and questions we always talk about;
- & so on…
But yesterday, I was able to produce my first results, and it’s amazing how the thrill of generating a meaningful graph can override the ache of skepticism.
Here’s what I did: I wanted to examine images of whiteness in Imagist poetry of the 1910s. I downloaded the PDFs of Imagist anthologies from 1914, 1915, 1916, and 1917, converted them to plain text, and cleaned up most of the errors. Then I combined the anthologies into one text set and ran a word frequency test. Much to my delight, the first word to appear after all the common words like articles (a, an, the), pronouns (I, he, it), prepositions (on, to, of), and “to be” verbs (is, are, was) was… WHITE!
In this case, the computerized text analysis did confirm what I already suspected about Imagist poetry, i.e., that it’s riddled with images of whiteness. But running the various tests (which I’ll spell out step by step when I have more time) offered information that could only be tediously gleaned through careful close reading and tabulations, such as:
- By inserting dividers <div><\div> between poets in my anthology texts, I could see that certain poets, such as Richard Aldington, H.D., and Amy Lowell, used white a lot (10-15 times each in a small set of poems), while others, such as F. S. Flint and D. H. Lawrence, hardly use the word at all.
- By testing for color words more generally, I learned that Imagist poetry is rife with color words, though terms that connote whiteness, such as “silver,” “pale,” “moon,” “stars,” “ivory,” and “swan,” are most common, with terms for yellow, including “gold,” “golden,” and “sun,” are probably in second place.
Here’s a graph of the most common color words in the Imagist anthologies I tested.
I then attempted a more complex test of Cyrena Pondrom’s brilliant argument in her article “H.D. and the Origins of Imagism.” In that essay, Pondrom uses traditional close reading, historical, and biographical analysis to argue that, although Ezra Pound is typically credited as the founder of Imagism, H.D. actually originated the style. She was writing Imagist-like lyrics well before Pound, and when he saw her poetry and labeled it Imagiste, he then began adopting the concise, spare style in his own verse.
To test Pondrom’s argument, I ran a word-frequency comparison between a collection of H.D.’s poems, a collections of Pound’s poems, and compared them to a test set of the 4 Imagist anthologies combined. Each of these anthologies contain poems by H.D., Pound, and about a half dozen other poets.
My comparison shows that the Imagist group [green dots] is in fact stylistically closer (as measured by word frequency) to H.D. [blue dots] than to Pound [red dots], which does imply that she may be the original “author” of the style. But perhaps more interesting than this rather loose conclusion is the list of most distinctive words for each poet that my test generated. The top 25 words that most distinguish Pound from H.D. are these:
hath, thee, thou, thy, ye, doth, time, mine, hast, lo, unto, ways, things, oh, ’tis, been, good, lady, glory, thine, art, truth, o’er, soul, seen
Compare that list to the top 25 words that most distinguish H.D. from Pound:
lift, has, cut, could, rocks, feet, across, fire, break, flower, touch, rock, leaf, caught, bright, wild, salt, must, gift, goddess, hurt, wet, beach, race, left
What’s so striking is surprising is that Pound’s list of distinctive words is chock full of archaic poetic diction: the “hath,” “thee’s” and “thou’s” that characterize old fangled English poetry—not the strikingly modern diction of Imagism. H.D.’s most distinctive words, in contrast, are short, concrete nouns and active verbs—the very kinds of language that characterize the Imagist Doctrine, which warns: “go in fear of abstractions.”
This list provides stronger evidence that H.D.’s poetry more closely aligns with Imagism stylistically, thereby providing additional support to Pondrom’s argument.
I may not yet have generated an original argument, but I’ve learned enough to begin to see how computerized textual analysis can complement (rather than substitute for) close reading of poetry, helping me to test, extend, and deepen my findings.
Anne Lamott’s birthday essay about “every single thing” she knows at the age of 61 has gone viral again. I was among the 86k people to like it on Facebook. What’s not to like about Lamott’s delightful blend of spiritual wisdom, dark humor, and love of humanity? Witness this from Lesson #1:
Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift; and it is impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It has been a very bad match for those of us who were born extremely sensitive. It is so hard and weird that we wonder if we are being punked. And it is filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together.
That’s a pretty delicious swirl, but she manages to trump it with the pithy maxim of Lesson #2:
Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.
Hard to argue with such bare-boned truth, yet Lamott’s greatest store of wisdom may lie in her homily on family:
Families; hard, hard, hard, no matter how cherished and astonishing they may also be. (See #1 again.) At family gatherings where you suddenly feel homicidal or suicidal, remember that in half of all cases, it’s a miracle that this annoying person even lived. Earth is Forgiveness School. You might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants. When Blake said that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love, he knew that your family would be an intimate part of this, even as you want to run screaming for your cute little life. But that you are up to it. You can do it, Cinderellie. You will be amazed.
What’s so great about Lamott’s insight into family dynamics is that it applies not just to humans like “Cinderellie” and Goldilocks, but also to the three bears and all their children, grandchildren, in-laws, and cousins. As you can see from this fable…
Once upon a time there was a family of bears: Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and their children, Big Bear, Middle Bear, and Baby Bear. They were, by bear standards, a happy family: Papa and Mama Bear loved each other, cherished their children, and doted on their grandchildren with appropriate excess of affection and requisite trips to Jellystone Park.
They weren’t perfect, of course. Mama Bear cared too much about her fur and worried excessively about whether the salmon in their diet had too much fat. She expected too much of her oldest and did too much for her youngest. (One might say she also passed on her anxious perfectionism to Middle Bear, though Middle Bear, who was born extremely sensitive, would deny the charges and be hurt by the suggestion that she was less than perfect.) Papa Bear was sometimes gruff and, when Mama Bear got sick and could no longer do the things she used to do, he growled and snapped in frustration. But he cared for her devotedly, and when she died, he mourned for her with as much ferocity as he railed against her illness when she was alive.
The Bear children, who were now married with children of their own, also mourned the loss of Mama Bear, each in different ways. Big Bear and her family caught extra salmon for Papa Bear, letting him to take comfort in their den. Middle Bear went into hibernation far away on another mountain, using the long sleep to recollect memories of Mama Bear before she got sick. Baby Bear, who of course was no longer a baby, distracted himself from the pain by fishing for salmon and searching for a new den for his family.
The winter of their grief was long and hard. Some nights Papa Bear’s wailing swept through the forest like a bitter wind, his tears creating icy sheets on the ground.
And then, before Spring had time to melt the snow, Papa Bear was surprised to find his heart warmed by a Lady Bear, who, having lost her own beloved bear husband a year before, was just as surprised to find her heart warming to Papa Bear. They baked bread together, and she sewed colorful quilts to spread across his barren cave. Just as the crocuses began to bloom, they discovered they were in love and decided to move into the same den.
“Too soon,” moaned Big Bear. “Too cold,” cried Middle Bear. “Too fast,” sighed Baby Bear. They were hurt, confused, and angry. They missed Mama Bear and did not want anyone to take Papa Bear away from them. They did not trust Lady Bear and did not want to let her into their dens. They lashed out at Papa Bear. “Listen to us,” they cried, “Hear our pain!”
Papa Bear could not hear their pain. He could only smell their anger. He was hurt and angry that his children would not welcome this Lady Bear who had brought joy back into his life. He snarled and snapped at them.
The Bear children were glad that Papa Bear snarled and snapped. They wanted him to behave badly, because it justified their anger.
“It doesn’t matter what we say,” the Bear children growled, “because he won’t listen.”
Papa Bear was glad that his children were angry and resentful, because it justified his self-pity.
“It doesn’t matter what I say or do,” Papa Bear growled, “because it won’t make any difference to them.”
The Bears retreated into their dens, licking their wounds. By this time, though, the daffodils and dogwoods had begun to bloom. As the rays of the sun warmed the earth, the very beams of love that had stabbed them and driven them apart began to soften their hearts. They remembered that they were put on this earth to endure the beams of love. Earth was, they knew, Forgiveness School. They had homework to do. So they gathered at the dinner table with Papa Bear and Lady Bear. And they all wore comfortable pants.
Long ago and far away in a land called Persia, there were three princes who spent their days traveling the world. As they roamed far and wide, thither and yon, across amethyst mountains, emerald valleys, and sapphire seas, the princes “were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right.” Another one, after a long day of travel that left him aching and sore, lay down to rest upon a bed of soft, wooly leaves of arnica, only to discover that the plant had a marvelous capacity to relieve sore muscles. And the third prince, having recently attended the grape harvest in the hills of Tuscany, sought out a goldsmith in Germany to help him repair his family ring. The goldsmith was building a printing press at the time, which reminded the prince of the wine press he’d observed in Tuscany. He told Gutenberg about what he’d seen, and thus movable type was born.
The Persian fairy tale of The Three Princes of Serendip found its way into the English language via Horace Walpole (1717-97), who, distinguished by birth as the fourth Earl of Oxford and son of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, became famous for his best-selling Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (London 1765). Walpole recounted the tale in a 1754 letter to his friend Horace Mann to illustrate the concept of serendipity—”a very expressive word” he coined to describe “the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description).”
Serendipity is the term we still use today to describe those happy accidents of creative insight: the phenomenon of “making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” And the term is making a comeback. Steven Johnson dedicates a chapter to the concept in his dazzling book Where Good Ideas Come From (2010). On January 2, just in time for new year’s resolutions, Pagan Kennedy published an essay the New York Times Review on cultivating “The Art of Serendipity” (2016). I read Kennedy’s essay first, before serendipitously encountering the concept again in Johnson’s book, which I’m halfway through. A Google search led me to Richard Boyles’ detailed account of the term’s origins in Walpole’s writings (2000).
I’ve embellished Walpole’s story with fictional examples of arnica and Gutenberg because I want to emphasize that serendipity is not merely good luck; it’s not just ideas dropping into your head “out of the blue.” Rather, discoveries come “by accident and sagacity”—by a combination of chance and intelligence. Serendipity, Kennedy writes, is not something that just happens, it’s “something people do.” It’s also something people do together, when minds and imaginations meet in print or in person. Like the Princes of Serendip, we can cultivate serendipity by being sharply observant of the world, following threads, and making connections between ideas, phenomenon, and people. It’s no accident that there are three Princes of Serendip traveling the world, not one lone, tortured genius holed up in an attic.
We don’t have to travel far to cultivate serendipity, Steven Johnson explains: “Reading remains an unsurpassed vehicle for the transmission of interesting new ideas and perspectives” (112). Far from seeing the digital age as a dark age for serendipity, Johnson says the the world wide web has moved a “fringe experience” to the “mainstream of our culture.”
I traveled along an archipelago of serendipity this morning, beginning with the New York Times daily briefing, which offers “what you need to know” to get through the day. Today’s briefing led me to stumble upon some word-image stories from the archive produced for Black History Month, which led me to this educational initiative, “What’s Going On In This Picture?” We often think we’re wasting time surfing the web, but maybe it’s better to think of it as diving into an ocean of ideas, stories, images, videos, games, tools, platforms, and resources, guided by passion and instinct, and rewarded by serendipity.
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.