Category Archives: Desire

On Thanks

1200People 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.

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Where I Am

3849820311_f5668a3d0c_oI found an old blog post of unexplored openings and decided to try one…

Here’s a list I’ve been idly compiling recently—foods that are just too laborious to eat. It includes the obvious (un-cracked crabs), the tedious (pumpkin seeds), the tragic (barely cooked stir-fry), and the sneaky (those half-exploded kernels at the bottom of a bag of movie popcorn).

Each addition—and conceiving of such a list at all—is symptomatic of a new attitude creeping into my life. It’s best summarized by a reply I could make seven or eight times a day:

“Really… again?”

I accept the part of my reaction that comes of aging. I don’t need to attend another “team meeting” or to compile another list of professional goals (with action plans) or to create another report describing the stultifying details of my extraordinarily ordinary task-laden job. But the problem is, unfortunately, bigger than exhaustion.

Once, I called staying power my chief strength. So great was my tolerance for minutiae that I believed I might sort a fifty-pound sack of mixed beans without complaint. I might agree to write the Gettysburg Address, circular fashion, around a half stick of chalk, just for fun. I could outline, then re-outline darker, the tiniest interstices of a child’s scribble. I’d take notes when the business manager of another school described the changed provisions of their health plan.

Now I sigh. I sigh so much that my officemates peek around the walls of their cubicles to ask, “Is everything alright?” What I hear them saying is, “Enough with the sighing, already,” or “Jesus, can’t you just get on with it?” I half-answer, tired of my reply before I reach the end.

As a teacher, I’m traveling a loop of familiarity. I picture riding a miniature train in my youth in Texas, the San Antonio Brackenridge Zoo train, folded at the hip and crying not from motion sickness but from pure ennui. I picture my son in the bouncy chair callipered to the lintel of dining room door, joyous for two minutes and then lolling, weeping, that he might be freed.

I’m not sure I have the will to finish this post.

Last week, my department chair asked me to answer questions about where I am in my courses and what I hope to accomplish before semester’s end. I thought, “I want to get there.” More, I want to get to someplace else, turn to some new and fresh task. What I call exhaustion is really desire for some new aim to target.

My age makes it easy to say little is left, but, really, so much remains unexplored. Those foods that challenge me need not defeat me. I may discover more laborious matters to chew, but I can embrace undercooked broccoli if I can believe in novelty. Just planning another life, and not sighing, would be a start.

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I No Longer Say I’m a Writer

47cdbc1e7d2aa37dac054a2258d6a939Back when Big Chief tablets reigned, I only had to make my pencil rise and fall between the blue horizontal lines to call myself a writer, and what letters described hardly mattered—a boy, a girl, a dog, a hat, some short verbs. Words were unsure of themselves. They carried little inherent meaning. They sat slack-jawed, evidential.

At each stage of education, however, I burdened words more and more. When they started to disappear beneath their loads of thoughts, my teachers called me a “writer.” At first, the label must have been aspirational, designed to puff up my ambition and flatter my “potential.” But what passed for thought was still often evidential, the mental equivalent of “See?”

There’s no defining what happened next because some of it—like the poetry and hand-wringing prose of middle and high school “journals”—happened during. Along the way, words asserted themselves again, insisting on their beauty, crying to be arranged. I began to call myself a writer, and thoughts became my thoughts, which only the right words could describe. Compositions meant to evidence the voice and mind behind them. Foolishly or selfishly or both, I needed to write and, intermittently, believed the world needed to read me.

You write, writers are told, because you can’t not. It’s a compulsion to be heard, and you go on shouting, speaking, or whispering because you must. You wouldn’t be yourself without something auxiliary to yourself, an outrigger of words built just so. The siren of art calls you onto the rocks, and you give yourself to a doom worth embracing. You get an MFA.

But I wonder lately if I’m over that vision of writing. Like walking or breathing, writing is something we do, and, like walking and breathing, the quality of the act appears only at extremes. For writers like me who reside between failure and success, as much energy goes into convincing ourselves we’re special as goes into craft. Reading others’ work, I see some craft is clearly virtuous, is clearly real. And some writers’ faith is redeemed whether the craft is real or not. Outside those two states, though, writers endure. My endurance has run down.

John Berryman famously said no writer will ever know if he or she is any good or not. It’s true you’ll never be certain because you occupy only your own mind, but not-knowing seems more critical now than good or bad. Ambitious writers cling to hope, dreaming of wordless poems or a finally ideal expression of personal truths. “Who knows?” they think.

Not-knowing is a talent I’ve never possessed for long. Because, most of the time now, whether I’m accurate or not, I think I do know. At least, I’ve read enough great writing that pausing between conception and execution usually assures execution never occurs. Generally, I’m okay with that. I’m working on not-caring. Let others want to be authors.

The urge remains—I’m here now, after all—but it’s an urge, not a compulsion. The reason I write, when I write at all, is that I like to. I’m more at peace with putting my pencil down.

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My Silly Lament (in 15 Parts)

3DIt’s been so long that who knows who still tunes in. I felt I had to write this lyric essay. Here it is… for whomever.

1.

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 after 35 years in classrooms, it’s the only part of the job that makes me feel competent. The rest is ash.

2.

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 they 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.

3.

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.”

4.

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.

5.

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.

6.

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 that.

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 noticed and, whether accurately or inaccurately, valued. I want them to feel seen.

7.

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’s 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 unprofessional confession I hate.

If I say, “Don’t thank me, I don’t deserve it,” which often comes too close to the truth, they think I’m asking them to dispute it.

8.

My latest deflection is to string together of 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.”

9.

We’ve been studying 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.

10.

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.

11.

It occurs to me that, if thanks are transactions, both parties need to believe, the one thanking and the one being thanked.

12.

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 a grave illness 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.

13.

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, a half desire can’t satisfy.

14.

One day one of my students—I’ll call him John—lingered after class. He asked me to write this essay. I was explaining, again, my misgivings about thanks, 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. Though my colleagues tell me that I’m “respected” and that a student “had a good experience with me,” I don’t know how to read their 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 we teachers receive a pen, some papers, and a charge, “Write about a teacher you meant to thank and didn’t.”

I’ve found something to say and someone to say it to. I’ve recognized which teachers have made me. At the time though, the hour passed. Another class demanded I move on.

15.

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 35 years, I want—too much—for the financial and social sacrifice to mean something. I’d like to believe my worth on another scale. “I could have made more,” I want to say, “I could have been more.”

I think of smiles passing between students and teachers, a teacher’s spotlight of kindness illuminating and redeeming all the troubles students face. In that, somewhere, are thanks. I just don’t know where… or how to believe in it.

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And?

ambition__media_cycleAnyone 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.

Can’t resting be glorious too?

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Your Familiar

blog_spring_shadowsAnother pseudo-story, based on a common literary motif. I’d call it a 20-minute story, but it took a little (read: a lot) longer to sort out. I’m beginning to wonder how people can be so good at writing those things… because I have longer sneezing fits.

Only in a dream could such a strange meeting take place, and that’s where this encounter between you and future-you occurred.

The sun sat at an odd angle that grazed the tabletop, its thick light hard to distinguish as morning or evening when you didn’t know where the window was. Somehow future-you seemed similar to the table’s shadows, pulled like taffy and attenuated but full and dark too. Naturally you expected future-you to be wise. You had so many questions.

Instead, for some time you and future-you communed, listlessly shifting and turning glasses, plates, and bowls as if they were pieces in a board game of subtle spaces and moves. The sun dimmed appreciably. Your eyes and future-you’s eyes marked its shrinking influence.

Future-you cleared his throat and you nearly jumped, but he had nothing to say and may have been prompting you. You locked stares, and you guessed his meaning—he envied you and wondered when this wisdom you expected left him or whether he left it on the lips of the last woman he kissed or in the swoop of letters never finished, or in everything granted, sold, given away, and lost. His doleful expression said so. He expected comforting. You didn’t anticipate that.

So you advanced your hand toward future-you’s. He drew back, then nodded.

You spoke first. Nothing you might say could be new, you figured, and so your speech rolled out in bursts like beach breakers. You can’t remember any of what you said, just that you recalled you were dreaming. Mostly you paused for interruption and hoped future-you might answer your noise with a greater and graver future voice. That would be enough.

Instead he appeared tickled, pleased to hear you fumble so. You would have mistaken his response for condescension except—of course!—future-you would react so, charmed by everything still fresh in you and spoiling in him. You matched his laughter with your own before catching a whiff of his breath and the unwelcome hints in its smell. You knew and didn’t know future-you, and he, you believed, knew you entirely.

His tears welled slowly at first and just glimmered in failing light. When you recognized his weeping, part of you wanted to console him. The other part desired more—how could you become so leaky, so riddled with age-spots, water stains, and patches of rust? How could all you wanted come to no more?

Perhaps future-you sensed confusion. He scooted his chair back and stood. You couldn’t miss his struggle. He hadn’t seemed old before, and his stoop loomed like death in the room’s near-darkness. He wasn’t angry. He held his dignity up as all he could say about you and him. And he meant to tell you he loved you. Whatever disappointment dwelt in him didn’t reach you.

Seeing that, he left and you woke.

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And by “You” I mean “I” (or “Me”)

round1To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Personal essays require believing you’re a valuable subject. The principle justification for writing about yourself comes from the granddaddy of personal essayists, Michel de Montaigne, who said individual experience is never purely individual. He believed, “Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition.” And—if you accept his premise—the particular, paradoxically, illuminates the universal.

Philip Lopate goes further in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay by urging confession. Confession garners trust because, “The spectacle of baring the naked soul,” he says, “is meant to awaken the sympathy of the reader, who is apt to forgive the essayist’s self-absorption in return for the warmth of his or her candor.” In indicting yourself, the thinking goes, you must be honest.

If you’re sincere, your “indictment” might include confusion and the hopelessness of ever deciding anything definitively. Admitting you don’t (and maybe can’t) understand could be part of every essay, especially if you undertake issues or questions hoping to resolve them. Montaigne said, “Anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgment this whirring about and this discordancy.” He also says, “There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture.” Yet confusion will likely frustrate your reader as much as you. Sympathy has limits. You’re supposed to say something worthy or why write? Expressing your finite intelligence isn’t helpful or winning or impressive.

What is? You can’t be sure. Personal essays involve inventing a tolerant audience willing to sympathize with tortuous, circular, and equivocal ruminations, fellow feeling that maybe might occur if your thoughts are new, relevant, incisive, clever, amusing. You could be the worst judge though, and not know it. Just as the tone deaf are least qualified to assess the quality of their own voices, you may sing on, missing cues signaling how discordant or flat you are. And any response, even the most muted and mixed, could produce disproportionate effects. Someone smiles or smirks, and you think, “Ah. I’ve said something. I’m communicating. An ear is listening at the other end of this line, after all.”

The high-wire risk of personal essays is faith. You pray you’re perching on insight. Keep going, write enough, and you’re sure to… you think. Life is finite, you think. One life may be different, you think, but, if you try hard enough or long enough, you’ll reach some truth, minor and irrelevant as it might be. Sure, quantity can be the enemy of impact, yet—you think—you’re an exception.

So you tread on. You reach your foot forward praying for something like solid ground or a great uplift of wind to keep you from falling.

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