People sometimes imply I’m not grateful enough. I catch their hints and know they’re right, but agreeing doesn’t get me far.
Cultivating gratitude receives considerable attention in cognitive therapy’s efforts to confront negative thoughts and amend counterproductive behavior. You change the way you act in order to change the way you feel, and one prescription is ending each day with thanks—name five things that went well today or acknowledge a few moments that made you appreciate yourself and the people who love you.
Sounds good. I’m not oblivious enough to miss my advantages. Living in Chicago, I walk past desperate homeless every day. I see the tired, three-job, overworked souls slumped in L seats. I recognize my comforts, the safe and appreciative place I work and the warm and welcoming place I live. My worries, I know, hardly compare. I ought to be grateful and—mostly—am.
I’m not sure why affirmations rarely work for me. Intellectually, they make sense, but my relatively good health, relatively good pay, and relatively good emotions don’t fill me up. Try as I might, satisfaction feels somehow false. Doing what a cognitive therapist asks feels like prayer from memorization rather than faith, an act.
Even Thanksgiving, the national holiday of gratitude, exudes desire—company, decor, celebration, and food—ultimately unsated by the most extreme excess. Like the rest of the U.S., it seems, I’m never sure how much is enough. With potential continually thrown in my face, the day ends without fulfilling its promise. Part of me remains empty and insatiable. Do I have higher hopes than can be fulfilled?
The Buddhist in me says, “Live now,” the corporate advertising machine says “Buy.” I fantasize sometimes about dire circumstances, the lower limit of what’s essential, what few things might actually be necessary for happiness—a good bowl of oatmeal, a working pen, a thoughtful companion, a book I relish rereading. Yet little in this world helps me discover what I must have… yet.
Perhaps some poverty ahead will help me decide. For now, I’ll join the chorus of gratitude, if only half-heartedly. For all my doubts, Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday, the least acquisitive of all the acquisitive holidays. I only wish to mean it more, to realize emotionally what I recognize rationally, to feel what I know—that I am indeed lucky.
When no real or virtual stack of grading awaits me, when no other deadline looms, when I have time to read carefully, annotate thoroughly, and plan thoughtfully and creatively, I love class.
Question and response and further question and further response come to resemble an intricate, entirely improvised dance. There’s inference and implication and irony and laughter. There’s progress toward answers we didn’t know we wanted, and the slightest signal drops discussion into another, more consequential dimension. Even un-staged epiphanies seem meant to be.
Many teachers must feel as I do. Class time is the pounding heart of teaching that sustains the rest. For me, even almost 40 years in classrooms, it’s the only part of the job that makes me feel competent. The rest is ash.
My school has a curious custom. At the end of each period, after students gather up their papers, re-zip their laptop covers, and file everything away in overstuffed backpacks, they—almost all of them—stop to tell their teacher “Thank you.”
I’ve never experienced such widespread and ready thanks in any other school I’ve taught. I’ve asked students new to our school whether that was the convention where they were before, and many say no. We’re an independent school—read: a private school—and admissions people sometimes tout this thanking habit as proof of the special teacher-student relationship here. Everyone, it seems, marvels at this ritual. Most of my colleagues espouse gratitude for this gratitude. They love being thanked.
For some reason, I hate it. I’m reluctant to tell students, but I wish they wouldn’t thank me.
The expression “thank you” looks outward. It includes only one second person singular pronoun “you” and thus appears selfless. It says, “you deserve thanks,” which suggests it’s all about that offering, all about approval, all about appreciation. Yet, if you listen too closely, you hear the understood “I” at the head of the clause, “I thank you.” A gift can begin to sound like a contract—not clear payment for services exactly, but a transaction nonetheless. Heard from that corner, “Thank you” says, “You’ve been paid. I have paid you.”
The Princess Bride begins with the backstory of Buttercup and Westley’s love. She relishes bossing the farm boy around, and he always replies “As you wish.” However, we soon learn his answer is code. The tasks grow simpler and simpler until she asks him to retrieve a pitcher well within her reach. Westley fulfills her desire with “As you wish.” “That day,” the narration reports, “she was amazed to discover when he was saying ‘as you wish,’ what he meant was, ‘I love you’.”
The moment’s indirection is beautiful because it relies on Buttercup hearing Westley say he loves her and not on his saying it. Love is in the reception and not the transmission.
I wonder what I might think if my students didn’t thank me.
People who grow up as I did with the maxim, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” are prone to hear silence as censure.
My emotional memory is deep enough to recall how torturous high school can be. The details of that time might have fled, but the romantic rejections, the relentless assaults on any belief in my academic, athletic, and artistic worth are still with me.
My senior year, I barely dammed tears when I received less than I expected—the score that should have been mine or indifference that, in light of my earnestness, felt like cruelty. Classmates more insulated by ego weren’t so sensitive, but we all rode waves of confirmation and doubt. I remember.
Do my students ride the same waves? I’m not sure, but my interactions with them assume so. If their high school years are like mine, what they need is for their emotions to be accepted and, as well as I can, valued. Who knows if they do feel I value them, but I hope they feel seen.
Even as, the older I get, the less they may see me.
Occasionally, I try to tell my classes that I don’t like being thanked, but there’s no proper way to say so.
If I say, “Don’t thank me, it’s my job,” it sounds like I’m saying teaching is only my job.
If I say “Don’t thank me, it’s unnecessary,” it sounds like I’m diminishing their gratitude, that I don’t appreciate their appreciation enough.
If I say “Don’t thank me, it’s embarrassing,” I risk an unprofessional confession.
If I say, “Don’t thank me, I don’t deserve it,” which too often comes too close to the truth, they think I’m asking them to dispute it.
One deflection is to string together all the forms of “You’re welcome” I know. The more people thank me, the more ridiculous it sounds.
“You’re welcome, any time, my pleasure, it’s nothing, thank you, think nothing of it, a trifle.”
We study vignettes in my senior writing elective, and, after a longer reading of six vignettes, I asked them to pretend they were determining “The Vignies,” an imaginary award for vignettes aligned with the Oscars, Grammys, or Tonys. They were to name winners in categories like “Top Vignette for Creating an Intimate Connection with a Reader” and “Greatest Mystery of What Was NOT Said (and yet WAS said, in a way… sort of).” They needed to write an awards show style speech announcing their selection and how they reached their decision.
It took some coaxing to get them to play along, but they did ultimately buy in, cooperating not just in the over-the-top fiction of those speeches but in the “we was robbed!” responses I insisted they make on behalf of spurned vignettes.
Forty minutes later, the day felt productive. I’d compelled them to scrutinize the reading, to make some thoughtful judgments, and to think about the bigger matter of how vignettes operate. Some of the speeches were funny too.
And, as they exited, several seniors thanked me.
Recently at my school, students have been secretly recording teachers with cameras in their phones then posting the results online. For the faculty, this behavior creates consternation. Some recorders must mean to show how funny or engaging we are, but others are malicious, hoping to show the opposite—how inept or clueless we are.
I’m sure they’ve focused their cameras on me and can only hope that, on balance, I’ve come across well. Made aware of what they’re up to, however, I wonder how many thanked me afterwards.
It occurs to me that, if thanks are transactions, both parties need to believe, the one thanking and the one being thanked.
At this stage of my teaching career, I can’t look for the attention younger colleagues garner. I probably won’t be asked to give another commencement speech. The fellowships and travel grants my school awards will likely land elsewhere, and I can’t fathom what performance might be enough to add my name to the plaque that designates my school’s best teacher each year. Only retiring might convince students to dedicate the yearbook to me.
I’m not insensitive to praise—who could be? And sometimes I’m haunted by the last line of James Wright’s poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”
“I have wasted my life,” it says.
All these thanks and still… perhaps the problem is me.
Desire, the Buddha says, is suffering, but what of half desires? What about all you want and, at the same time, don’t?
In seventh grade, I was in what-I-thought-love with Nita Stroud. She seemed to care about me when I didn’t care much for myself, and my desperation soared to quite unquiet protests of affection. When she broke up by telling me I was “too intense,” I remember feeling confused. Was I relieved, even happy? I’m still not sure.
Desiring nothing means getting everything. By that standard, even a half desire can’t satisfy.
One day one of my students—I’ll call him John—lingered after class. He asked me to write this essay. I was grumbling again over being thanked, how I perhaps should (but didn’t) know what students felt when they said “thank you.” I should write something, I told him, to figure out the source of my ambivalence.
“I’d read that essay,” John said.
These close moments with students are rare. My colleagues tell me I’m “respected” and a student “had a good experience with me.” I don’t know how to read these compliments. What I want is a sure sign I’m reaching someone after all this time. Yet, that’s not something any teacher can expect. I’ve been to many conferences where we teachers receive a pen, some papers, and a command, “Write about a teacher you meant to thank and didn’t.”
I’ve found something to say and someone to say it to. I recognize which teachers made me. At the time though, the hour passed. Another session demanded I move on.
Many days, I walk to school. It’s no mean distance, two miles or so, but it’s a division between home and work. This time of year, it’s dark, and I barely hear anything other than my steps, barely see anything other than threadbare traffic similarly drawn to starting earlier and better.
Teaching has been my singular devotion. I’d label it “a calling,” if I could be so melodramatic. After all this time, I want—too much—for the sacrifice of money and stature to mean something. I’d like to place my worth on another scale. Still I think, “I could have made more. I could have been more.”
During my own schooling and in my current school, smiles pass between students and teachers, a spotlight of kindness illuminating and redeeming shared troubles. In that, somewhere, are thanks. I’m just unsure how to believe it.
Anyone who has run competitively knows what it means to press. Exertion edges past comfort, and you pray for some pleasure in punishment, or at least you hope for an outcome erasing the torture whispering in your brain. When the voice grows loud and insistent, you tell yourself you’re a better person for enduring it, embracing it.
But you don’t need to run to know what pressing is. Some of the things you’re sure you want, you don’t want… and vice versa. You know—because you’ve been told—choosing to travel downstream means never seeing the mountains. If you do more than you think possible, you’ll redefine what possible is.
What does not destroy you… oh, you know the rest.
Yet my most rare pleasure is doing what occurs to me. I’m surprised when I find myself enjoying, without guilt or self-recrimination, some activity I wandered into. I’m happy for each break from thought and action. As a child I occupied time, and not in the way I use that expression now—as expending or wasting time before important events—but in the gentler sense of dwelling in and on the present’s comforts.
The line between relentless determination and masochism grows fuzzy. In the marshmallow test, the contest goes to the child who leaves the first sweet alone in anticipation of two later. The children who only want one, we’re told, go on to lives of mediocrity. Yet, the test seems biased. What if there truly is no time like the present? By what measure of success are the satisfied unsuccessful? What if contentedness is the ultimate success?
Today, like every day, I’ve jotted a list of what must be done. The day’s value comes from the number of check marks added to that list. Anything else distracts. Three phone calls, emails to answer, and every variety of follow-ups await me. Even this post makes the list—creativity becomes production. Because moving is crucial, every minute demands gripping the road, making progress on projects… whatever “progress” and “project” mean.
Though I recognize forces of instant gratification working in the world too, I’m of the bigger-better-faster generation. We’ve been conditioned to distrust comfort and complacency. We’ve been led to believe we’re useful only when we expend breakneck effort. Anything easy, my parents taught me, is not worth having, and, hence, I’ve come to believe less (and less) in accomplishments. Once attained, they tell me I’ve aimed too low.
Having makes me wonder about something more, harder, more worthy.
I’m not alone. We’ve forgotten how to rest. We want to devise, institute, adjust, amend, alter, generate, or overturn. Our phones are out and we’re doing and doing. We nurture hope the next moment will be better (or at least different). The present is perpetually incomplete. No subject or object can be left alone. Because we’re a half-turn from bringing everything into a more fulfilling alignment, we spin and spin.
I worry our addictions to novelty and progress will disqualify the value of the past. We seldom, if ever, consider what we give up. We miss the repeated lesson that heedless innovation produces unanticipated, often complicated and ambiguous, results. Despite our technology and sophistication, we remain animals who so fear being prey they don’t dare pause. We exhaust ourselves to attain some safe state of relaxation that never arrives.
Herds of lemmings, I understand, don’t really rush off cliffs… but we may if we whip ourselves into a dead run where we’re frantic, exhausted, and addled. Satisfaction and consummation obsesses us, but when do we have enough?
Some ambition is necessary—we have problems to solve, and that takes dedication. And I’m not against a runner’s type of pressing if your motive is to test your capacities, exercise your talents, generally revel in the blessings of being alive and strong. I’m all for the glory of that sort of effort. Yet, past a point I wish I could better define, ambition begins to look like compulsion, the twitching of a rabid mammal.
As an English teacher and someone who devotes considerable time to writing, I’m always interpreting and positioning words. Every day, I look for (and create) patterns, searching for fresh and resourceful arrangements that communicate thoughts separate from my physical setting. I suspect my world is different from some people’s. At least, I hope they experience life more directly—without so much analysis, commentary, or judgment.
Reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Parkhasn’t been good for me. Austen’s hikes through internal landscapes make mine look like speedboat tours. Ten minutes of Fanny Price’s thinking—roughly four pages—considers seven angles on one aspect of Mr. Crawford’s reaction to her body language after his failed proposal. Sir Thomas says six words before the 500 addressing their meaning to him, the situation, relationships (past, present and future), and the nature of social interaction in general.
I’m barely exaggerating. Austen’s prose evokes thoughts and emotions so subtle I start to feel like a cartoon chameleon crossing plaid. It’s hard to keep up.
Early on in life we’re taught to anticipate, rewarded for guessing, and urged to see beyond this moment. History and current events interpret more than they report, and we assess now by comparing it to our expectations. Partly, that’s what humans do. Our survival relies on seeing some distance. Yet many religious traditions—particularly Buddhism—encourage us to “be here now,” to allow “present” to live up to its name.
Austen would make a lousy Buddhist. After reading Mansfield Park, I step out of the novel as off a treadmill. The world won’t be still. The implications of every moment outrace time, and everything is more (and less) than it seems. Here’s Edmund Bertram telling Fanny about his angsty courtship of Miss Crawford:
I know her disposition as sweet and faultless as your own, but the influence of the former companions makes her seem—gives to her conversation, to her professed opinions, sometimes a tinge of wrong. She does not think evil, but she speaks it, speaks it in playfulness; and though I know it to be playfulness, it grieves me to the soul.
Meaning slips and slides all over the page as Edmund asserts what he knows (but clearly doesn’t, or he wouldn’t need to speak) and then unravels it in repeated reclassification and qualification (her professed opinions, echoed from former companions, to her conversation, sometimes, a tinge, speaking but not thinking, only playfully). What do you grip here?
Before Edmund begins the attempted explanation above, he tells Fanny he “Can’t get the better of ” his thoughts, and, the trouble is, neither can I. What’s actual and imagined switches places constantly. Austen loves characters who build reality from ideas that carry them far away from here-and-now. I go with them.
The 2013 movieAustenland (based on the novel by Shannon Hale) describes Jane Hayes’ (Kerri Russell) visit to a theme park based on Austen’s novels. She spills her savings to go, and (without spoiling too much for you) discovers only the fruition of Austen’s stories satisfy. The rest—murky motives, couched comments, pretense that isn’t really but could be, and notions of yourself and others neither you nor any other person can pin down—all that is a special sort of agony, a ring of hell Austen’s romantic reputation doesn’t advertise.
For me, Samuel Becket has nothing on Jane Austen. He may give a reader little to assemble into meaning, but she gives so much that, at least until the last few chapters, won’t assemble. No surprise, then, when Jane of Austenland decides, “I don’t want to play anymore… I want something real.” That’s my reaction too.
Don’t get me wrong. Austen’s effect does her credit. I admire her artistry. Sometimes, I just wish she weren’t so good, so in sync with the way I perceive, think, feel, and live. She makes me hungry for moments my mind quiets, the positions, angles, and relations of objects become plain, the scene around me solidifies, and the sun discovers a room more real than my mind’s wanderings.
I think, “Hey, it’s pretty nice here. I really should get out of my head more.”
Dean Reese’s tight smile conveyed success—yes, I could drop Macroeconomic Theory though drop-add had long passed. No, it wouldn’t appear on my transcript. Yet his smile spoke. “All of us have weaknesses,” he said, “it makes us humble.” The scolding followed.
He said he wouldn’t rescue me again because I was meant to learn from experience. You expect trouble. You try harder. You compensate. And if none of that works, you accept failure and move on, wiser about what’s reasonable to demand from yourself. You can’t always escape from the trouble you find.
I thought I knew that.
The year before, I’d enrolled in calculus, and despite endless hours doing and redoing practice problems and a deep determination to prove I could learn anything, I failed the first two tests. Any math class would have satisfied my requirement, but I wanted to learn calculus and believed no subject could be beyond me if I tried harder than anyone else ever had before.
My calculus teacher, a stuttering graduate student from Scotland, knew his subject well and worked hard to help me, but my eyes danced over every page of numbers and variables. They would no more land there than my feet would settle on hotplates. I resigned myself to blotting my academic record and decided to study hard enough to eke out a “Gentleman’s C.”
You discover who you are by failing, I told myself. It’s unfortunate, but bumping against the ceiling of your abilities or unveiling how wrong you were or seeing the familiar transformed by a new understanding or blushing with deep embarrassment and error and realizing, “I’m not what I seem”—that’s what matters ultimately.
In calculus, finally free from anxiety and my overblown drive, I caught up with the algebra everyone else already knew, relaxed, and started doing well. Then amazingly well. Maybe my professor gave me a gift, but I received a B at the end of the term. It felt like escape—a triumphant one—and I learned nothing.
So I landed in Macroeconomic theory the next year, doomed to trip into the same situation again, again, and again.
Dean Reese’s message never sticks for long, which some would say is good, but not really.
When I was running and racing a lot, I’d stand in the crowd at the starting line reviewing my training, reassuring myself I’d done all I needed to prepare. “The money is in the bank,” I’d say. Yet, looking around, the runners in my area looked equally fit, and some—I could tell just by assessing their physiques and demeanor—would run much faster that day. They were what I’d like to be and more blessed with lung capacity plus slow and fast twitch fiber I’d never possess no matter how I trained. It was liberating to admire them, and I’m not sure why, but seeing how much more limited I was comforted me as much as patting myself on the back for working hard.
The challenge of balancing ambition and acceptance seems endless. I want so much and want to know how much I can reasonably want. It’s good to strive. We’ve told so from birth. But wouldn’t it be nice to know where striving ends and living with your actual self begins?
The second part of a long lyric essay on Prospero of The Tempest. The first part appeared last Tuesday.
The epilogue to The Tempest shifts strangely from triumph to resignation, even to self-abnegation. In possession of his dukedom again and pardoning everyone, Prospero asks for mercy from the audience. “Release me from my bands,” he begs, “With the help of your good hands.” The footnote tells readers “hands” means applause, but it doesn’t have to—Prospero could as easily be seeking succor, intimacy someone of his power and intimidation may be denied.
In the epilogue he says his mission has been “to please,” which is not revenge, not justice, and not his new-old job in Milan. Having given up everything to stand where he does, he says his end will be “Despair, / Unless I be relieved by prayer.” Early on, Prospero aimed for vindication but finishes with a petition for mercy that “frees all faults.” Rather than crowing over his successful tricks and traps, he asks, “As you from your crimes would pardon’d be, / Let your indulgence set me free.”
His supplication sounds nothing like victory.
Who sets us free from our own feelings? Who convinces us that we’re in the right spot now, that this new balance of gains and losses is better and that we’re ourselves at last?
Writers like Jean Anouilh link tragedy and discovery, suggesting tragic figures reach self-knowledge only the hopeless can. When escape and delusion become meaningless, when alternatives whittle to one, tragic figures see themselves more honestly than other mortals might. There’s no squirming, no final evasions, subterfuge, or denial.
But Prospero is no tragic hero—he achieves his desires and undergoes no downfall. Does he share a tragic hero’s awareness?
Attaining his previous position shatters his understanding of himself and his place. His return to Duke of Milan may be the proper resolution of events, but he lost the job originally because it bored him. And his successful retribution, instead of filling him with confidence and power, illuminates his misunderstanding of himself, a new desperation, and an awareness—albeit a dim one—of his own crimes and need for mercy. He sees his own flaws in trying to make others pay for wronging him.
But he isn’t dead yet, and, I wonder—as his every third thought of death arrives—if he still has a tragic hero’s desire for relief.
It’s cliché to say Shakespeare changes as you age, but I identified with Caliban the first time I read The Tempest. Caliban is acted upon, unappreciated, and distressed. As Prospero’s plaything, he relies on the fuel of resentment. He is in every way compelled, denied choices and given no proper spot on the island or anywhere else. He isn’t pretty or nice, but he burns in ways Prospero doesn’t. In comparison, Prospero’s battles seem willful, fitful, and arbitrary.
Prospero is the master and what right does he have to be unhappy?
Some readers may say the epilogue of The Tempest completes Propero’s arc from anger to humility. He hasn’t enjoyed winning as much as he thought and seeks universal amnesty and calm instead.
If that’s so, he will make a lousy duke to Milan. His brother the usurper has greater initiative and confidence. His brother wants the job and looks to no one for relief.
You can grow tired of wanting, particularly when you’re unsure why you want, whether an ambition you distrust can be real, which uncertain alternative can bring joy.
If, as many believe, Prospero is a surrogate for the retiring Shakespeare, the play’s grace note feels like an exhausted surrender. Prospero appears to want nothing more than to drop his instrument and walk from the orchestra unnoticed.
He is not the same person we met. The vehicle of his transformation is not killing others or harming others as a tragic hero’s might be, but he does kill—willingly—a part of himself. Maybe, in casting off his slaves, his magic, his daughter, his autonomy, and his desire for revenge, he hopes to see his raw self, the self he will be when he slips into that last powerless sleep.
I wonder if he does.
Compared to Prospero, many more thoughts intervene between my thoughts of death. But I understand more now. When ambition achieved, unachieved, formed, or abandoned fails to satisfy, when ambition seems itself positively punishing, it’s natural to desire rest.
The first part of a long lyric essay on Prospero of The Tempest. The second part will appear Saturday.
In the last act of The Tempest, Prospero describes his impending escape from his island exile and his eventual return home. He will first sail to Naples to see his daughter Miranda marry into a handy alliance and then travel to Milan where he will be restored as Duke.
It seems a joyous outcome—and one Prospero labors four acts to effect—but, thinking of his future sitting on his restored throne, Prospero reports, “Every third thought shall be my grave.”
How does success make him so unhappy?
The Rolling Stones tell us we can’t always get what we want, which is true, but we also know we should be careful what we wish for in the first place. Sometimes what we wanted isn’t what it pretended. Aspiration looks good from afar, but capture can be less fulfilling than pursuit.
I sometimes tell my students they shouldn’t take my criticism so hard because an essay without flaws might be more curse than boon. Write the perfect essay and what would you do tomorrow?
Fruition invites redefinition. Having done something means something more to do… someone else to be.
Among Prospero’s final deeds is shedding his books, staff, and magic. Nothing makes that step necessary—being naked of magic isn’t a condition of his return—but he decides that, once he’s redressed all the wrongs against him, he won’t need his powers. He frees one beloved slave and another not-so-beloved one with the words, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” He forgives deceivers who wronged him and ends twelve years of isolation.
Yet he seems melancholy. He never quite says so but swings between satisfaction or surrender. As the action of the play ends, he invites the usurpers and schemers into his cell to hear how he has lived, how he survived and thrived in the harsh island’s conditions, his glee with where he’s been more vivid than his anticipated return to civilization.
Sometimes we want things because we think we ought. Envy makes us desire what others have attained because, after all, we feel just as able, or think we are. “What about me?” the greedy heart cries and incites clumsy effort to find its proper place. Getting there may promise little pleasure—quite the contrary, you may feel you cut cross-grain against deeper, more immediate and comfortable desires—but it’s not always easy to distinguish between should and ought. Should sounds gentler. Ought suggests some grander, more dubious, aim.
Ariel, the slave Prospero likes best, brings dispatches—the status of the villains Prospero tests and torments. Some of them suffer. They’re ignorant of Prospero’s plan and its happy conclusion and know only their grief and torment.
“Your charm so strongly works ’em,” Ariel tells Prospero, “that if you now beheld them, your affections / would become tender,” and Prospero bristles. He replies, “shall not myself, / One of their kind, that relish all as sharply, /Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?”
Prospero is often so defensive. Part of him wonders if his unjust usurpation arose from an accurate cause. Part of him knows his plans aren’t harmless, yet he didn’t consider how others might feel. Worse, he hasn’t examined his own feelings, whether his longing is so important he can abide becoming a stranger to himself.
When I came to Chicago almost ten years ago, it was as the chair of the English department. My old school had become predictable. My place there was—and appeared would always be—a younger brother, a role I know well. I’m used to being George, not Paul or John, nor even Ringo, who has the good sense to choose humor over earnestness and anarchy over hierarchy.
It took six months to recognize the person the job required and how different he was from me. I was competent in the skills and vision required but incompetent in desire. The job wasn’t beyond me, just beyond my perseverance. I played the role for a while because I refused to surrender, to give up an exalted sense of capabilities I didn’t care that much about proving.
And when I stepped down after two years, I felt no better. Whether I called it quitting or others did mattered little. For another year, I thought I should be chair and, since I should be, I ought to be too. Yet I’d sacrificed my spot and couldn’t go back.
Each decision is sacrifice, one alternative dying for another. You may find a means to return but will have to confront the choice that necessitated doubling back. You won’t know whether you were right all along or right now, and, in that case, both are wrong.
It’s no longer April. Still I’m offering the last of my haiku and prose in haibun. I’ve been writing one (or so) a day as part of NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month). The entries below are the last attempts I made in this exercise.
beneath the surface
If I bear down, I remember watching my children draw and the way concentration collected in their faces, especially heads and brows lowered as if more shade might make paper more visible. Maybe I’m inventing, but a scent returns. It’s tempera mixed with dried sweat and the day’s weather clinging to their clothes.
My son once loved volcanoes and drew countless versions of truncated triangles spewing fire and dripping red that divided over and over like tree roots to the mountain’s base. My daughter sketched birds flattened by her conception to resemble the warning shapes affixed to windows. Past their form, they became an excuse for elaborate coloring.
dimensions in blank planes
Somewhere is a box containing my children’s art, ages 2-11, and I evoke it sometimes when I can’t sleep and begin mentally cataloging memory. This box doesn’t close as most cardboard boxes do. Its top is like a tray with walls and lifts on and off. When you remove it, you hear a faint but audible suction as air rushes to fill the new space created. The white surface, yellowed by age, shows signs of tape added and removed, scuffed to brown where previous seals lifted the surface layer off. Written on top, in sharpy, in handwriting I’d recognize as my own, is “Kids Art.” As far as I know, no one has looked inside it in ten years. I remember the box better than its contents. I can’t say exactly where we’ve put it.
Containers move with my family, so that—gathering things again—I encounter boxes that once held copier paper from my first job or bottles of a spirit now evaporated from the marketplace. The sides and top display three names, two crossed out: bedroom, closet, storage.
stacked in towers beam
rest or worry
My dreams often intrude on sleep, scratching night’s table like an absent-minded vandal who doesn’t want to spell and doesn’t want to speak. The meal never arrives.
that blood is
your artery’s extremity
diverting once more
a neglected play,
this classroom map—plot and
My ninth grade history teacher taught me geographical terms I tried to inject in conversation—never in the way they were meant to be used. Few arose naturally in my flat gulf coastal hometown of La Marque, Texas anyway. Instead, I’d toss them into remarks just to see if anyone might call me on them. “That’s an especially veldt shirt,” I’d say, or “I’m pretty sure question seven was the most escarpment one on the quiz.” Or “Isthmus watch Star Trek tonight.”
after a storm
earthworms litter the street
like relaxed numbers
Of course the kids in my history class called me out, but everyone else did too. People might ask, “Excuse me?” or “What did you say?” but they might also say, “You’re using that word wrong.” If I asked how I should use it, many said, “I don’t know… but not that way.”
My best friend did me one better by inventing an alternate means of describing teachers in geographical terms. My English teacher, for instance, sometimes combed his butte before class or exposed his heath by leaving one too few shirt buttons buttoned, our science teacher, who was fond of wearing gaucho pants, always drew her mohair cardigan closed in front to guard her too ample pampas, and our gym teacher wore gray coaches shorts barely long enough for his eastern peninsula.
a hissing broadcast
When the history curriculum left geography for actual events, my friend’s experiments with metaphor and innuendo sought other terms, but I’m sure I learned something.
your wheel won’t roll
or window close
You had cats, plural, but I only met the one you proffered the time we sat together on your couch. I think you might have said more to the cat than me and all of it in a cartoon voice I didn’t recognize. But sitting there, I wasn’t someone I recognized either, and you recognized that.
statues’ shadowed eyes,
noses hooked to block light—
My younger brother did most of the manly acts in our family household. A Boy Scout, he paddled Canadian lakes and at home he road his bike to the levies trying day after day to catch a 50 lb. alligator gar on 25 lb. test. When he succeeded he gave the gar away and rode home again. He played baseball. He watched hunting shows on Sunday morning.
And I wished to be so manly, but each expedition found me trailing along, imitating the acts of others, and making transparently small talk.
a puffed cloud,
its strut behind a mountain
If my mind were a house, I’d stand in the doorway, most of my thoughts turned inside, and longing turned out.
pecking— its engine clearing
No one ever convinces anyone else to stay for long. The loops including two people bound by pleas are threads. The fiber cuts, strains, and snaps. The bed divides. The night tugs.
Once again, as part of NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) I’m offering haiku and prose in haibun. I have one more Thursday in April. The entries below are attempts from the last few days. The numbers communicate how far I’ve traveled in this exercise.
folding a sheet
under a half-moon—a sail
and light put away
As probably everyone does, I turn my pillow to find its cool side. My new posture—collecting the compressed mass under my head and resting on my ribs—discovers my heartbeat, pounding like a wake to a shore.
you maybe said
time was near—I heard bells
Getting up never seems easy. Slow or fast or delayed or denied, it ruins two states. Dreams end in cataclysm and consciousness starts in shock. I suppose in some past the transition was gentle, dawning birds and light and warmth, but I don’t know that.
steps echo from the corner—
the day’s first words
skid in my throat—I collect
sound to speak
You told me not to say it, not in words but in your expression—a starched smile, eyes barely alive—and still I went ahead. Light dimmed. The sun seemed hooded through blinds, and shadows strained to reach across the carpet.
a crow shows one eye—looking
or not, who knows?
Nanette Wagoner couldn’t like me, and I knew that, should have known that. Something set her on, and, in three days, she sent me note after note filled with words. I only knew her face and didn’t read the messages really, just weighed their length and followed the loops of letters to the end. One day, she’d be taller than I would, I saw that. We shared no classes, but when she laughed just inside my hearing, the sound buzzed in my chest.
If she liked me, I would like her.
what a wonder
day falls—the sun drowning
over and over
Of course she lost interest, but the notes anchored a drawer for years, proof of appeal, a place.
I stole a large canvas laundry bin from my dorm and rolled it, full of my possessions, from 123th to 113th where friends lived. My classmate and his fiancé may not both have wanted me but felt sorry enough to let me stay for a time. My year—not even a year—in New York ended, and I wouldn’t return to school. I thought of working while I found a job, pictured bearing satchels while bicycling through traffic. Without prospects though, who could believe something so hard?
what sign told you
This trip started with my telling my girlfriend goodbye. She’d asked for one more night and cried, still we’d agreed to no more. She’d never left her other boyfriend, the weekends I pretended not to know her were sad, and another year of schooling awaited her and not me. Time expired.
The wheels, barely bigger than casters, danced under the load, and no effort I made to guide my craft by pushing the correct corner kept it from fishtailing, sometimes into a current of pedestrians flowing the opposite direction. I said, “I’m sorry” one hundred times. Early summer heat already rose in the first hours of sun, and by the time I reached my friends’ buzzer, I was soaked, shirt and pants clinging. He laughed to see me exhausted by such a silly journey, but helped with my load, soon to be a pile in the corner of his living room.
beneath the surface,
beneath its skin, beasts move—
the sea still
In another two weeks my brother would drive up from home, and I’d leave for good. My possessions never left their boxes. I watched my friend study at what I’d abandoned and plan his next steps over terrain that slid under my feet.
of highway seams, dawn slanted
Doing the dishes, I occasionally splash water on my shirtfront and spend the next hour flapping the fabric to dry it. Something about the act reminds me of childhood, restless winging, the tug to what’s next.
Some years ago, I returned to my classroom and discovered everything swept from my desk and onto the floor. The glass in my wife’s framed picture cracked. A stoneware mug where I kept my pens—the prize for winning my age group in The Kentucky Derby Half-Marathon—sat in two parts. The figure atop a women’s cross-country conference trophy splintered at the ankle. Dirt from a plant mixed with paper and a coffee cup’s contents.
That year, a group of sophomores regularly hung out in my room, and I asked them what they knew. They’d been in math or Spanish or art and hadn’t seen anything. I learned nothing more, but something in their expressions suggested restraint. A few seemed poised to speak but didn’t, bound by the no-tattle code. I had my theory, and, uncharitably, assigned the act to a student I knew hated me.
Few people like being hated, and I don’t consider myself interesting enough to be worthy of hate, not the sort to inspire vehemence of any sort. I certainly try not to be detestable. Teaching colleagues sometimes say, “If someone doesn’t hate you, you’re not requiring enough of your students.” I never repeat that advice. Hate, I prefer to believe, isn’t about its object. It is broadcast instead of targeted, or targeted only to release the pressure of a deeper, wider well of dissatisfaction, usually with yourself.
Haters, T-shirt wisdom goes, are gonna hate. It ‘s them, not us.
Yet a sort of pheromonal and supernatural enmity existed between me and my suspect, and, if love inspires reciprocation, so does hate. I worked at what professional decorum requires—reminding myself, mantrically, “I’m the adult”—but found no easy solution. I’d catch judgment, sarcasm, and dismissal inside our exchanges.
I care for humanity more now but haven’t eluded antipathy altogether. Occasionally someone or something irks me, and I douse it with explanation, understanding, empathy. Yet hatred as a broadcast is in me too, and, battling it, I say my backbone and not my brain or soul deserves blame. That’s not so or, if it’s so, I need the grace to pretend otherwise.
Were my suspect reading now, I might say, “Hey, listen. Whatever happened, I don’t care. I understand in the moment whatever you did made sense to you. I don’t blame you for thinking I deserved it… as wrong as you were.”
You hear how poorly I perform. That probably wouldn’t work, then or now. Anyone listening would know I don’t empathize, don’t believe, and am living above—instead of with—the truth. I’m disgusted with myself that my rational half will never outface my emotional half, disgusted that I can’t write down all the aspects of character I desire and make them real. And there’s still plenty of disgust left over for the accused too.
Back then, superglue and I became intimate. The trophy and the mug found something like their old form. My wife’s picture disappeared in favor of a more current photo and frame. The plant was nearly dead to begin with. I settled on saying I didn’t know what happened and reassured myself when any other possibility leapt into my head. I still don’t know.
My suspect and I engaged in just a few more stilted and brittle conversations. At the end of the year, he transferred to a boarding school—I wrote one of his recommendations, as was required by his application—and we’ve seen each other only once since then. We didn’t speak, just locked eyes across a room.
I looked for something like guilt in his face, didn’t see it, and was glad… for all the right, and all the wrong, reasons.