Teaching, and Now, Retirement*

On May 31, I resigned my faculty position teaching English at a small high school. The school solely served at-risk students who had been removed from the home for various reasons; most of them had gotten in trouble with the law, but all of them came from extremely dysfunctional families. As, probably, do a great deal of students in America. I have deeply loved my students, but I can only describe that love as a running of one’s hand backwards against the grain of wood. That doesn’t sound pleasant because most of the time it wasn’t (much of love isn’t pleasant, yes?), but I have been shaped by it. I will always feel that grain, and even when my hand is at rest, I’m sure there will be the phantom brush across my knuckles. I taught for six years, and I don’t believe I’ll enter education again; not because of the education system, but because I’m on the cusp of middle age and I’m beginning to realize with some anxiety that if I don’t free up some time to accomplish the things I set out to do when I was 20, then there will be no more time.

Fittingly, I was reading Marilynne Robinson’s “Home” this morning:
“None of this had mattered much through all the years of her studies and teaching, but now, in the middle of the night, it was part of the loneliness she felt, as if the sense that everything could have been otherwise were a palpable darkness. Darkness visible. That was Milton.

Those grown children had, almost all of them, bent their heads over whatever work she gave them, even though their bodies were awkward and restless with the onset of adulthood, fate creeping through their veins and glands and follicles like a subtle poison, making them images of their parents and strangers to themselves. There was humor in it of a kind that might raise questions about the humorist.

Why do we have to read poetry? Why ‘Il Penseroso’? Read it and you’ll know why. If you still don’t know, read it again. And again. Some them took the things she said to heart, as she had done once when they were said to her. She was helping them assume their humanity. People have always made poetry, she told them. Trust that it will matter to you. The pompous clatter of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ moved some of them to tears, and then she had talked to them about bad poetry. Who gets to say what’s good and what’s bad? I do, she said. For the moment. You don’t have to agree, but listen. Some of them did listen. This seemed to her to be perfectly miraculous. No wonder she dreamed at night that she had lost any claim to their attention. What claim did she have? Could it be that certain of them lifted their faces to her so credulously because what she told them was true, that they were human beings, keepers of lore, makers of it? That it was really they who made demands of her?”

That credulity; that trust.

Finalist in Narrative’s 2013 Spring Contest

“Lantern, Name Thy Bearer”, an excerpt from a long story I’ve been working on, was selected as a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s 2013 Spring Contest. Here’s a list of the finalists, a group in which I’m proud to be found:

Jerad Alexander On Our Next Stop in Modern War
Robert Bausch Rescue
Joe David Bellamy Bad
Stephen Carson River of the Crumbling Banks
Camilla Collova The Year I Grew Up
Pete Fromm Grief
Roberta Gates The Man Who Wore Violets
Nhi Huynh Caught
Katherine James Fishhook
Louise Marburg Poor Bob
Elizabeth Mosier Animator
Lynn Stegner Cedros Island
Seth Wieck Lantern, Name Thy Bearer
– See more at: http://www.narrativemagazine.com/node/223484

P.S. The inimitable msodradek looked at it this summer and made some much needed suggestions, for which I’m very grateful.

Finalist in Narrative’s 2013 Spring Contest

His Tomb Is With Us To This Day

Once again, the fine folks @curatormagazine have posted one of my essays. I have a few more scheduled over the next several weeks, so I’ll keep you informed.

My nephew Jude was stillborn. The diagnosis came early in the pregnancy: an extra chromosome written into the genetic language would lead to, among other maladies, a terminal heart condition. A period on a sentence still being thought. Yet. Inside the womb, Jude was vibrant. Strong even. I felt him kick my hand through my sister-in-law’s stomach. The reality of that touch was difficult to reconcile with the doctors’ predictions. The doctors had narratives built from a battery of tests and data, but I had flesh upon flesh.

His Tomb Is With Us To This Day

On the second day of a trek into the Sawtooth Wilderness, in Idaho, we were all invited to spend twenty-four hours by ourselves…very soon, although the day was bright and unthreatening, I was cowering in my tent. Apparently, all it took for me to become aware of the emptiness of life and the horror of existence was to be deprived of human company for a few hours…What enabled me to stick it out – and to feel, moreover, that I could have stayed alone for longer than a day – was writing.

Jonathan Franzen. “Farther Away”. The New Yorker: 18 April 2011, p. 83.

Franzen, and his friend David Foster Wallace, shared the belief that the novel (writing) is a response and antidote to loneliness. In this essay, he asserts that he was able to enter community more easily after having responded to his loneliness by writing. Franzen ends by going back to a community of sorts, after his retreat into the wilderness, with a gained understanding of his friend’s despair.

Put that next to Wallace’s most recently (post-humously) published story in the New Yorker, in which a young boy begins a years-long quest to kiss every single inch of his own body – where the boy retreats further and further away from the community into this absolute solitude. 

Question: What does this say about art? Tolstoy, an influence on Franzen, maintains that Art is a primary “means of intercourse between man and man” – that the “capacity of a man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself” is the basis of art. So for Franzen, to write (make art) is to respond to and overcome loneliness, and to experience community with man. Whereas, for Wallace, art became a way to indulge in loneliness; be utterly alone (which may speak to his intentional inaccessibility; impossible vocabulary, etc. although I’m unqualified to make a real claim there).

Andy Crouch makes the observation, in his contribution to “For the Beauty of the Church”, that God created man and culture for each other, and after the Fall, mankind exploits and perverts culture by covering himself/herself with fig leaves. “[Culture] becomes a defensive measure, an instrumental use of the world to ward off the world’s greatest threat – the threat, suddenly a threat, of being known, of trusting one’s fellow creatures and one’s Creator.” Culture can be used as an attempt to reach back to the community of Eden – pointing toward the Gospel; or culture can be exploited in order to keep from being known – a fig leaf smokescreen.

For further reading, David O. Taylor has an interesting article on the development of artists in community here.