Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Little Way

Strange how the sting of a statement can persist.  Lately, my memory keeps replaying an encounter with a college classmate in 1985.  She appeared in Tewligan’s, a bar in Louisville where my friends and I danced on Friday nights.  I hadn’t seen her in two years and, in that time, I’d received my masters and taken a job teaching sixth and seventh grade English. We exchanged what-are-you-doing-nows, and she said the only important part of this story.

“Sort of underemployed, aren’t you?”

I haven’t seen her since—I can’t recall her name—but she provided one of those moments when everything seems shaken into place—the DVD seated and swallowed, each bottle slotted into its proper square in a lattice, all the b-bs settling into the dimples of a clown’s face.

Her question stuck with me because high school and college classmates expected more of me. The usual scrawled good wishes fill my high school yearbook but so do many assertions I’d someday be president, a movie actor, a general all-around famous and accomplished person. Many students probably have yearbooks like mine, but in college my ambitions ran unchecked.  They rose to Parnassian heights.  My senior roommate and many of our friends fully expected us to be renowned writers reviewed regularly in the NY Times.  He is.  I’m not.

My son is a high school senior.  Right now, his applications fly in a holding pattern over his head, and he waits to see which acceptances will land and which jet elsewhere.  I wonder if he has such ambitions for himself and hope he doesn’t. His impressive talents, nurtured well, might take him far, but I’d like him to live by the standard of satisfaction, not accomplishment.

I’ve measured my own life by what I might have done. 25 years later, I hear my college classmate echoed in questions about why I’m here and not elsewhere, why I’m not doing something different or something more.  People are no longer asking really, but I hear it. I ask myself.  So short of my early dreams, I resist recognizing I’ve found my level.  Satisfaction feels like rationalizing, trying to bury an ambition that pounds like a heart long separated from its body.

In Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, on the way back from an blissful day on the coast with a new love, the main character Binx Bolling realizes the small joys of his life and says, “It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh.”

As the great Catholic novelist, Percy has Bolling express the sentiment of St. Thérèse of Lisieux who espoused the Little Way as a devotion to everyday people and everyday tasks—in her view, the right way to worship.  Salvation was daunting in her day, a question of how near perfection believers came.  She expressed the welcome idea people might love God less through Acts and more through simple, day-in, day-out goodness.

And I wish I could believe her.  I’ve nothing to be dissatisfied about.  I’m good at teaching, or at least earnest about doing my best, and have always sought to exercise my talents, such as they are.  In my best moments, I’m happy in Thérèse’s little way.  I want to be because there’s agony in comparison.

When my son was small, he told me he was “good at a lot of things, but not the best at anything.”  He’s attended schools where even bright, creative, and diligent students stand in the shadow of brilliant and dazzling talent.  It’s hard not to compare, but I want him to be satisfied with making the most of what he has and form no ambition beyond devoting full effort to building on his considerable gifts.

Like every father, I want him to have what I lack.  I want him to find his way.

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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Home Life, Hope, Laments, life, Meditations, Parenting, Recollection, St. Thérèse, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Walker Percy, Work, Writing

On Principles

Those are my principles and if you don’t like them… well, I have others. –Groucho Marx

Interviewing for my present job, someone asked me, “What would be so important to you as a teacher that you might resign over it?”  My mind turned to static, as if the question discovered a blank channel in me.  I must have fumbled through an answer—they hired me—but I don’t recall what I said.

I only recall the question.  It could have clued me to my future—my school can be a pretty contentious place—but at the time, I didn’t know that.  I wondered what might be wrong with me that nothing, nothing, nothing floated up.  I wondered how much I might let go.

Since then, however, I’ve come up with an answer.

Oliver Wendell Holmes believed, “To have doubted one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilized man,” but his is the minority view.  Few people believe in purposeful doubt, and, even if they do, doubt is something to vanquish.  We are supposed to know what we think, and what we think is supposed to be important.  For some, a life without principles is slovenly and slack, indistinguishable and undistinguished, a murky mess.  Holding nothing inviolable is a bad sign.

I feel that way sometimes… except, to be honest, principled people can scare me—the extremist who gathers adherents as if popularity made his or her principles valid, the figure with a personal beef who sets him or herself up as a cause, the angry dam to every trickle of change or amendment, the strident voice asserting something is true because it ought to be, the zealot who calls every complication a lie, the person who can’t divide what-this-means-to-me and what-this-means.

Every now and again, I see myself as one of these people, which scares me even more.

Some acts appall me, some dismay me, some irk me—I’m bothered—but, at my best, I know my principles are not the only ones.  I believe, in principle, we ought to acknowledge we think differently. Some basic doctrines help us coexist and persist, but losing the capacity to listen and adjust our principles in light of others will halt our evolution… and then likely lead to our end.

So here’s what I should have said:

“I understand that, for many people, resigning in protest is an admirable act, but I can’t see deciding not to contribute.  I’d worry I was setting myself apart from and above others.  If I’m ever uncomfortably out of tune with the values of this place, I’ll leave.  But we all have values—I have many and many of them are complex and contradictory.  I want to express what I feel and know the best way to be heard is to listen.”

And if that answer didn’t get me the job… well…

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For Saint Valentine

Actors startle us when they break the fourth wall dividing stage and audience. “Hey you out there,” they say, “we are real people only pretending to be real people.”  We greet their news like revelation.  We expect to be left alone.  We aren’t prepared for intimacy.

Real life has four walls.  We are both audiences and actors, and, if our lives are plays, they are endless and seamless and unmemorized.  We portray ourselves, trapped in a room that never allows us to go outside or see us as someone else might.  We’re told intimacy is inviting someone in, but how do you invite one room into another?

And sometimes we sit behind a fifth wall. Invisible, a diagonal to every room we occupy, it divides our thoughts from the world. We say the mashed potatoes are delicious when they stick like putty in our throats and replay conversations when we might participate in one underway. Others catch us smiling at nothing because we’re behind that fifth wall, in the room yet not in it, neither watching nor participating.

We speak explicitly to ourselves, but saying anything to anyone else requires formulation and codification.  We choose words to cover subjects no number of words can cover entirely. Some words have their own life, and sometimes the gap between our intention and our effect seems impossible to bridge with language.

True intimacy requires sharing, a wordless sense that what we see, feel, think, believe, or know is mutual. It appears when a sunrise means as much to another person, when a child’s tears bring others running, when a photograph, poetry, or strain of music pull emotions into the same stream, when touching seems reflex, when we’re all in one room. Sex is intimate only when self-consciousness disappears, when partners regard it as visited upon them and not created or staged. All sex is passionate, little is common passion.

Which is to say, intimacy is miraculous. Sometimes everything in the modern world seems to conspire against it. Personal entertainment and personal perspectives and personal needs discourage it. We’ve come to believe in the finest distinctions between us, and our differences are now far more important than our being one species. Sometimes it seems the only intimacy we can count on, the only intimacy worth relying upon, is the automatic intimacy of being with ourselves, behind that fifth wall.  Yet we haven’t lost—and can’t lose—the need for love.

Today, on Valentine’s Day, roses will fly and chocolate flow.  The intimacy industry will have its most lucrative day.  Though the holiday seems silly and arbitrary, as self-serving and self-gratifying as any other date, it is at least good for this: today let’s celebrate the possibility of a shared world where all of us pass through walls. Today let’s believe love is the grip that holds us together, in one world. Let’s hope for intimacy. Let’s hope we’re not alone.

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Filed under Doubt, Essays, Hope, Laments, life, Love, Meditations, Thoughts, Valentine's Day, Words, Writing

You Pick

After five abortive starts on this week’s blog post, I decided to write fifteen opening sentences instead. Maybe you, Dear Reader, can help me choose which to pursue…

1. Even when snow doesn’t fall, winter can leave you snowblind—lost between landmarks and anxious for traction.

2. It’s unfortunate self-loathing is my great subject, as no one wants to read about it and, of course, I don’t blame them.

3. Those who call blogging the land of confession need to remember it’s also the land of amnesia.

4. People seem surprised when they discover I follow football, and, to be honest, I’m embarrassed.  I’m a fan despite myself.

5. Insomnia has taught me all about lonely hours, ones that leave you feeling you’re earth’s last inhabitant.

6. New advertisements on TV beg Catholics to return to the church and, a fallen away Catholic myself, I hear them luring me to the rocks like a Siren song.

7. One of the indignities of aging is how little sympathy it elicits.

8. Emerson said “Imitation is suicide,” but, if it is, it’s the slowest sort.  Most of our days are a deliberate imitation of the day before.

9. In my running list of ugly emotions—anger, hopelessness, contempt, and many more—envy is moving to the top of the chart with a bullet.

10. After five years in Chicago, I understand the appeal of urban living.  I’m addicted and have trouble even picturing suburban or rural life.

11. Recently I’ve been thinking about Chuang Tzu’s fantasy in which a man dreams of being a butterfly and wakes to wonder which is real, the dream or his life.  That’s exactly how I feel about work and home.

12. The body replaces every cell in seven years.  My mind replaces memories much faster.

13. The other day someone told me Kafka’s friends found him hilarious.  I can’t believe it…  but maybe that’s because I don’t understand humor myself.

14. Sometimes I envy people who carry only fatigue home from work.

15. One of my friends has a peculiar gift for being eloquent even when he has nothing to say.

PS. Should YOU want to write a post using one of these openings, please do.  Just leave a link in my comments section.

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