Saturday, October 21, 2017
He walks the river path in the morning. Walk might not be the right word; what he does is more like a shuffle, and his heels have worn away the fabric of his too-long pant legs. He looks strong and has the shoulders of a weight-lifter or a wrestler. He has tattoos on his face, a tear in the corner of one eye. The yuppie runners give him a wide berth as they jog past, eyes averted, voices too loud as they discuss investments and travel plans. It is cool this morning, for the first time in a long time, but he is still over-dressed. My guess is he wears his entire wardrobe. When he passes me, he shoots me a quick, appraising, look. When his eyes hit mine, I smile an easy smile. I see you I say. With that his eyes light up and he smiles back. S'up? he says. Chillin' I say. Nice day he says. You too. Two neutron stars collide several hundred million light years away. Waves ripple out. Time bends. Gravity hops a ride with light. He straightens up, lifts his eyes. It might be my imagination but his step is just slightly lighter, perceptibly lighter. Maybe.
Friday, October 20, 2017
The key to writing, for me, has always been desire. I write because I have something I want to say, maybe even need to say, or, rarely, because something needs to be said. Then I do the work of finding out how to say it, pick the genre that will work best, the voice, the register, the techniques. And, I will take this to my grave, it is in the magic of storytelling that communication happens best. When a writer captures the imagination of a reader, things begin to cook. The world of the writer overlaps that of the reader, creates a world that the reader can move into, is invited to try out, and the reader chooses to share the writer's vision, take on a new way of seeing things, and, (gasp!) might learn something. Now, this may be a quaint notion, since people don't really read anymore, but, as a teacher, with a bare minimum of convictions, I will quit before I give this up. So I carry on, with one eye on the door.
He, the failed writer, down there, toiling away in obscurity, was shackled by the very things that would free him. Chains of stinking litanies held him frozen in fear, catatonic at the prospect he might actually wake up. His identity began to wear thin though, and he began to see through the garb of who he thought he was. He saw the black coat that had defined him in a clear, irrefutable starkness -- it was a fiction that served only to contain the light radiating from that part of him that was the gift of a dying star. He was, he realized, a drop of an ocean, connected to a mystery he would never understand. The words, he saw, could only free him if he let them come to him from where he knew he did not know. From the quiet of "doesn't matter what others think" and "you do this because it is what you do with no thought of the outcome" he found freedom and joy in the work. This getting out of his own way made him a bit crazy in the eyes of others, but gave him the attention he needed to hone his craft. Beauty. Beauty. Whether or not anyone ever sees or understands.
Wednesday, October 18, 2017
An old guy, about my age, walks into a bar and sits down between two women. He is out for a good time, so pops his question with the hopes of a much younger man. "Do I come here often?" Well that is the status of the state of this writer's mental nation. My brain has gone south, packed its bags, moved to the tip of Tierra del Fuego and left me here holding the bag of appointments that I can't seem to open or make sense of. I wake up to a new day with no idea what went on in the old day and don't have any idea how to sort out what isn't there on the big blank slate that is my memory of a long and complicated to-do list. I need a personal, or even an impersonal, assistant. I need a seeing eye dog to guide me through these days of fog and gray indistinctness. This condition, Can't Remember S@*t Syndrome, will be my undoing, my Waterloo, my swan song. Every day presents a new list of things to be left undone, a pile of cans to kick down the road, a tall glass of oblivion to sip at my leisure.
Monday, October 16, 2017
The beating heart of my job, at one time, was teaching: local, actual, at-your-door, what-are-we-going-to-do-tomorrow-in-class-with-25-students teaching. I and my colleagues trained graduate students to teach in a year-long course. In small groups we worked through the baptism-by-fire that is a first year teaching freshman writing. We brainstormed brainstorming, conferenced conferencing, and graded grading. Teacher/writers taught student teachers, and our authority came from years in the classroom along with our reflections on teaching to improve practice. And we tried to make student writing meaningful; we read literature because it raised human questions, invited students to consider perspectives other than their own, and, at its best, pushed students into zones of discomfort, new ideas, and pointed toward writing as a way to create knowledge, insight, perhaps empathy for ways of knowing other than one's own. We wanted to make our students think, and also to feel; to be thoughtful citizens, better human beings. Our teaching workshops were messy collaborations where we shared materials, trouble-shot student conflicts, mulled over the nitty-gritty questions of what makes good writing, developed critical awareness of how language can be shaped for effect; we worked to create a community (both teachers and students) that wrote its way into understanding that was beyond the teacher, beyond the text because that was what writing was supposed to do: shine a light on big questions. By today's standards, the workshops were low-tech, paper-intensive, anecdotal lessons and discussion that seem quaint by today's "professionalized" teacher training. Authority has been transferred to the "experts." Now, grad students read scholarly articles -- written for scholars -- about teaching in lieu of sharing lived experience. Our classes are driven by vague, hugely abstract rhetorical SLOs, and we use a corporate textbook instead of our in-house anthology. We don't teach the features of the essays and genres that we actually grade, but instead the thinking about notions of context, audience, purpose, and how all that works. Nothing wrong with that if there's something to stand on underneath it. But we don't give students much help in building the stairway to those lofty abstractions. We don't actually instruct students how to narrate narratives, or to show rather than tell, or to craft an analysis. We point to the tools and say "have at it; you're on your own here." The core now, (I can't call it a heart) is administration, and is more "about" writing than actual writing. Teachers "keep track" of things, just lay out vague ideas, point to pages in the text. We don't much model or practice ourselves. Craft, process, student engagement, attention to language, real care about subjects is pretty much accidental if it happens at all. Such is the freight train of new way and it has run me over, left me bloodied and broken in the ditch as it moved on into our vague, assessment-driven, centralized, unaesthetic, sanitized future.
Friday, October 13, 2017
The crossing gate was up, an erect little soldier, as I closed in on my opportunity. But just as I was about the pass over, it came down. I tried like hell to get in under the wire, but sure as sin, I was blocked out. The rest of my happy little caravan of writer wannbees just kept going. Oh, a few of them waved as they receded down their paths, around a lovely bend next to a river I thought I might know. But I was going no further. The guardians of the gate said so, and their dogs growled to reinforce the message. So I turned around and saw that my path went off in another direction, the one toward teaching. It was a rocky one, beset by days of fog and obscurity. I had to keep moving ahead by force of will. I don't know why this happened, why the others got to go on, why it doesn't matter any more that someone else lives the life I dreamed.
Thursday, October 12, 2017
He is there again. I have lost count of how many times I have seen him there. He is perched on the fountain, looking like a statue, not a feather out of place, a Greek god. Of course he watches me and tenses his talons, ready for the lunge that will lift him into flight. To say he is handsome understates his elegant dignity. Why he perches there on the lip of the fountain I don't know. Maybe he contemplates his visage in the reflection, wonders if it is all worth it. I doubt it. He is too full of life for such petty ruminations. Life is to be embraced, he says, lit with passion and risk. I am glad he is here. With the world of wild creatures in decline he thrives here in close contact with humans. At least there is that. At least there is a Cooper's hawk that sits on my fountain in front of the place I call home for now. With a heart crying out for contact with wild wisdom, at least there is that.