Category Archives: Gratitude

Number 500

closed-signOnce or twice, after arriving at a favorite neighborhood restaurant, I’ve discovered it closed for good. On the door is a pithy thank you note to loyal patrons. First I think, “Oh no!” and then, “Are they calling me out? Wasn’t I loyal?”

They don’t have me in mind. Restaurants close all the time in Chicago. It’s rough getting started, rough maintaining quality, rough remaining relevant, and rough for owners who must sometimes resent the crazy, constant labor of their working lives. Even popular places can’t always make a go of it when the rent rises or someplace new opens nearby. More loyal patronage, I’ve decided, wouldn’t help. It’s the situation. Better to remember the wonderful meals you had there with friends and move on.

Today’s post is my last on Signals to Attend at least until the end of the year, and maybe forever. For some time, I’ve been thinking about closing. And though I haven’t decided entirely, I feel finished.

A blog isn’t like a restaurant. Few people make a profit, so money doesn’t matter. Nor do I rely on visitors as restaurants must. Okay… it sometimes bothers me when an essay or story I’ve slaved over gathers few readers, but then I tell myself I don’t do it for numbers. People are busy, and it’s nothing against me.

Which brings me to bloggers’ similarities with restaurant owners, at least the ones who never hit the big time. We don’t expect fame, maybe, but we hope to provide a place where pleasure might be found. We don’t imagine we’re the only choice or the most revered or the glitziest, buzziest choice, but we hope to satisfy those who happen in, loyal or not. And much of what we do is behind the scenes… necessarily so. The cycles of resupply and preparation that carry us from one offering to the next aren’t visible. We think, plan, and rethink until we’re ready, and, if  we aim for our best work, we don’t begrudge the labor.

As announced in the title, this post is number 500. I couldn’t begin to count the hours I’ve spent composing and revising for this blog. Dear Reader, it may not seem much, but for six years, my life has revolved around being here. Whatever else I was doing—reading, preparing for class, grading papers, coaching, writing grade reports, traveling, dealing with personal and family crises and celebrations, seeing to the rest of my creative life on my other blogs and in my other life as a visual artist—I appeared here at the requisite times. I wanted to post something new, and I’ve missed few deadlines I set for myself. Sometimes this blog felt like a part time job in a life too busy to accommodate one.

More so lately, not just because of the challenge of finding something new to say or because I’m still seeking different voices and styles but also because questions about my purpose nag me. Distinguishing between desire and obligation can be difficult, especially as visitors shrink and the thrill of twice being “Freshly Pressed” or cresting some follower milestone fade. I’m proud of my consistency—even if it’s crap, there’s a lot of it!—but when I mention my blog to friends and colleagues these days, they ask, “Are you still doing that?”

A restaurant owner might say doing anything for a long time—even when you try your damnedest to maintain quality—makes you reliable, which is not at all the same as exciting.

I’m not leaving the blogosphere entirely. I have a poetry blog I post to when I feel like it, a haiku-a-day site I’m devoted to, and the weekly cocktail blog I share with my brother. This site will stay open, if only as an archive.

So consider this my note on the door:

Thank you to all my loyal and not-so-loyal followers, my periodic and random visitors, my disgruntled objectors, my sympathetic ears, and my tsk-tskers. Your intelligent reading, your “Likes,” and especially your thoughtful comments inspired me and challenged me and helped me grow. You have been the center of my attention, and, though you may no longer find new material here, you haven’t left my thoughts.

 

 

Advertisements

18 Comments

Filed under Apologies, Blogging, Doubt, Essays, Gratitude, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Resolutions, Thoughts, Time, Work, Worry, Writing

Danger Danger

8326674788_ffc5919ef8_zOccasionally people ask if I worry about posting online. They wonder about potential embarrassment to me or to my family, or the professional trouble I might get into if superiors or students read a post, or the hate even a mild point of view can inspire. I know the internet is prone to spinning gray into black and white and isn’t a natural place for the measured or reasonable. Anyone who reads comments sees the disproportion of cyberspace, the glee some take in judging others on the barest basis and then spewing ugly, often scary, venom.

But, no, I don’t worry about that. Statistics tell me how many people find this blog every day and who can be sure how many actually read? After four years, Signals to Attend has quite a few followers, but WordPress doesn’t say how many of those really follow and how many hope for a visitor or follower in return. For the record, I return visits (though not always with comments) and am grateful for whatever loyalty this blog cultivates. Reading and writing is, potentially, the positive side of the internet, its capacity to create community, and company. Whatever the risk of blogging, the benefit of meeting thoughtful writers is greater. For me, it has been anyway.

I don’t rely on limited visibility though. One wrong reader could make life miserable and, although sometimes my ire bubbles up, I try to moderate the ferment, to be circumspect, to watch my measures and combinations to make the best brew possible. I use no names not already in the public sphere. I name neither family members nor my workplace and try to protect anyone I do name by considering how it might feel to be the object of my criticism.

Writerly friends, in fact, sometimes urge taking more risks. They say I’d have more readers if my opinions ventured into perilous territory. Yet, the biggest risk, to me, is saying what you think or feel as exactly as you can. It’s easier to be dramatic and “out there” if you don’t worry how accurately you express yourself or communicate the truth you see. Getting your own heart right courts equivocation and complexity. In our world, maybe that’s the risky stance.

Every once in a while a comment arrives that might be summarized as “Why would you think such a stupid thing?” or offers unsolicited advice carefully tailored for the misguided… and tailored a couple of sizes too small. In those cases, I’m polite. They come from a desire to make things better. And, of course, they’re often right.

Plus risk is part of the process. Who would want to create no response? If writing were simple, we wouldn’t suffer so much over it and—suffer over it as much as we like—our writing is bound to be incomplete if we try (as we ought to) to sort out what we don’t understand. Anyone who can help me understand my topic or myself better is welcome. For that, I’m also grateful. Just assume my intentions are good, please.

Really, my only worry about posting online is that my time and effort may be wasted. Everyone knows the Oscar Wilde quotation, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” As many bloggers must, I worry about dancing to my own tune, calling “important” what’s actually self-indulgent and solipsistic. Worse than wandering into trouble is wandering into dark and empty rooms. I think of closing this blog down every time I pass a significant number of posts, but it’s never because I fear backlash. What I fear is that the trouble is all mine or that my best escape from issues is being irrelevant.

Leave a comment

Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Anxiety, Blogging, Desire, Doubt, Essays, Gratitude, Hate, Identity, Laments, Modern Life, Rationalizations, Resolutions, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

Coda

SabinaHere’s another 20 minute story using a deck of cards called The Storymatic I gave my daughter for Christmas. I drew two copper and two gold cards, and this post is the result. I won’t tell you what the cards said, but why not guess?

On the soldier’s last day, all the prisoners had been liberated save the one who refused to leave.

Everyone knew that prisoner well, as he’d been an author, he said, and told great swaths of his novel’s complicated plot in a stream of whispers like smoke. He always ended in snorted laughter and a promise to tell more later.

All the other soldiers left too. One remained behind because he’d volunteered, promising to stay long enough for someone to pick up the prisoner or for the prisoner to waste away at last or for the company to double back as they returned from their patrol. The prisoner lay in a bed of gray straw, stacks of relief cans and boxes forming a castle wall around him. They’d tried to make him eat, and he’d accepted their offerings promising to. Each day the walls grew a little higher as he grew weaker and promised again.

The soldier knew more of his story than the others. Only he really listened, knew the characters’ names, the events that made them, the conversations placing them in the same world. One character, the soldier convinced himself, was the prisoner’s daughter, a girl named Sabina who’d perished of fever during a heavy snow, her father trudging, pointlessly, to a village for a doctor who wouldn’t come.

Periodically, the prisoner’s laughter—mixed with coughing—rose from his nest.

“You are with me sir!” he said, “You read my story. You know it.”

The soldier knew only the value of company, the relief of a last moment with another.

“You remember how the spring came, how daisies sprouted in the black soil and brought the sun back,” the prisoner said, “You remember love, how it meanders like lost roots seeking a sky and a chance to make faces to meet light. You remember.”

His eyes reminded the soldier of creosote, iris and pupil mingling in deep brown.

“Listen.” the prisoner lifted his arm, so thin to be so heavy, and beckoned the soldier over.

“You love her, right? My Sabina. You see how she waited in hope and smiled even to the last. He wasn’t there, but they told him that, made sure he heard that even if the rest of the world was white and silent.”

The soldier nodded, and the prisoner laughed again, his head tipping back to reveal a mouth full of black teeth, the pit of his empty throat.

Shuddering, the prisoner was by then so light as to seem a moth, the rhythm of his coughing no more substantial than paper wings. The soldier couldn’t be sure but was convinced he died before he finished laughing. The prisoner’s eyes drooped, and his faint smile drooped too, but remained in echo.

The soldier would have a long wait before the patrol doubled back, but he had plenty to eat, and he thought, “Whatever the company is, it isn’t bad.”

He reached for one brick of the prisoner’s wall.

1 Comment

Filed under Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Gratitude, Grief, Identity, Kafka, Metaphor, Parables, Thoughts, Writing

Season’s Thoughts

EZ 1850Q OPENSometimes I wonder if others feel as I do, like a person standing in front of an open refrigerator full of food, confused about what to want.

I read somewhere that, when you’re truly hungry, anything will do. The rest is appetite only, desire rather than need. That must be so. A healthy person appreciates what life presents and recognizes the best choices as necessities, fulfillment, not whim or chance or craving.

But, if so, then I’m not healthy, another 21st century person restless for something new. My cravings leave me feeling spoiled, ungrateful, and crass, annoying to tolerate and so entirely lost as to be hardly worth correcting. I supply internal reminders—be thankful, be thankful, be thankful. You’re lucky, you’re lucky, you’re lucky. You need no more.

Please tell me I’m not alone. As often as I prompt myself to gratitude, I still sense some deficit, something denied, and I search and search for what “something” might be. I like to think it isn’t just self-absorption. Nothing is quite right. This refrigerator doesn’t seem mine. Its contents look like a stranger’s idea of appealing, and what I’m supposed to want doesn’t match any true longing. I want, and what I expect and hope is always just out of reach, impossible to grasp.

Maybe my complaints try your patience, but listen. I wonder if I ought to be adjusting the world instead of myself. My default position is that my problems arise from my deficits, my inability to deal with what life deals me. Yet what if the world is the trouble, if thinking I’m the trouble allows the world to persist in its pathologies, to stymie all my chances at satisfaction, and to disrupt gratitude? What if I’ve been duped to accept discontent as means to more effective marketing?

Maybe my restless desire for more isn’t wholly my doing.

It sounds ridiculous to say so, but we take so much onto ourselves now: the issue isn’t what creates stress but how we deal with it, the issue isn’t the outrageous misdistribution of wealth but our own materialistic definition of success, the issue isn’t advertising but our susceptibility to it, the issue isn’t our laments but our lamenting. The real truth may be—in all these cases—both, but what does our owning so much of the problem get us? How can we improve the world if we always feel it’s we who need improving?

Thanksgiving has passed. Christmas lies ahead. Over the next few weeks, I expect to be bombarded by all I ought to want, and I expect some of it will convince me. But I’m going to try to keep the door closed, to decide for myself when to open it.

1 Comment

Filed under America, Apologies, Brave New World, Christmas, Desire, Essays, Gratitude, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Modern Life, Resolutions, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry

Starting by Finishing

Library_of_Ashurbanipal_synonym_list_tabletPeriodically, I feel compelled to present capricious visitations of ideas—random brainstorms that never make it as complete essays or posts. Maybe somewhere in these 25 openings is a longer composition, but they seemed complete almost before I finished expressing them…

1. When it comes time to write another post, I often have only the first line, and everything unreels from it.

2. One impulse from childhood has never left me—if I see a branch barely hanging from a tree, or find a hole not quite punched out of a page of loose leaf, or hear a song nearing its end as I leave a store, or notice a speck of lint on a woman’s black sweater, or encounter a gate just ajar—well, you get the idea.

3. As you grow older, you change enough to think your memories might belong to someone else.

4. In third grade, I was always afraid classmates heard when my teacher called me up to her desk to tell me to smile.

5. People sometimes imply I’m not grateful enough—I don’t miss their hints and I don’t think they’re wrong—but agreeing doesn’t seem to get me far.

6. Here’s a list I’ve been idly compiling recently—foods that are just too laborious to eat.

7. Sometimes I imagine famous writers looking over my shoulder as I compose my posts, and they are almost always full of disdain.

8. Whenever someone pauses for comments, or asks some assembly whether anyone has an announcement, or if I visit a place with a guest book waiting for my name, home, and some short note, I’m always tempted to paraphrase Nabokov’s Pale Fire, “There’s a very loud amusement park across from my present dwelling”—for some reason, that sentence is, reliably, the first thought passing through my mind.

9. I’d love to write about the great abiding things in life—stars and seasons, small talk and people in cars glancing my way, the sudden smile of someone who’s just had a revelation or eyes cast down or away—but I wonder if I could make them interesting again.

10. Has anyone who wanted to be funnier ever managed to become so?

11. Perhaps a valuable object is among items I’ve squirreled away in disused drawers and boxes in boxes, but I didn’t put them there to save them—I wanted them out of my sight.

12. My peculiar brand of egotism includes believing I’ve got the market cornered on laments, that no one can speak to feelings of inadequacy better than I can.

13. The other night, when I couldn’t sleep I tried to remember places I only visited once and discovered how very many such places there are.

14. Reading poetry always makes me want to write, and sometimes I don’t finish a poem, half-afraid it will get to what I want to say.

15. Is it terrible that I think humans might have had their chance?

16. All my life I’ve been saving material for the one time I’m allowed to write about having nothing to write about.

17. I use so many analogies in my daily conversation I’ve tried to come up with an analogy for why they seem so useful.

18. It’s occurred to me that not being able to play a single card in solitaire may be far more rare than winning.

19. Once someone asked me, “If you were in an airplane of famous poets, and it was going down, sure to crash, and there was only one parachute left, what poet would you give it up for?” I still don’t have an answer because I can’t get past visualizing the hypothetical.

20. My conversation and writing abound with phrasing and vocabulary I’ve encountered (and reencountered and reencountered) in books and poems I’ve taught, and I keep hoping someone notices.

21. Track workouts in high school taught me how to count tortures. “After this lap,” I told myself, “I can say ‘after this one, I can say, “after this one, one more.”’”

22. “Familiarity breeds contempt” and “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” so I’ve been studying the right moment to get lost.

23. One of my students asked me if I thought I had “a novel in me,” and I wish I’d considered how she’d react before I answered, “Sure, I’m a sack of novels just waiting to rip open.”

24. I’d like to assemble all the people I care about (but lost track of) so I can apologize.

25. In middle school a forensic event called “Extemporaneous Speaking” taught me you can always find something worthless to say.

1 Comment

Filed under Aging, Ambition, Blogging, Desire, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Experiments, Gratitude, Identity, Laments, life, Lyn Hejinian, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Memory, Poetry, Reading, Recollection, Resolutions, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Voice, Worry, Writing

The Parade of Maladies

IMG_4856A very little story for a very busy week…

She wanted to stage a spectacle, to gather the identifiably flawed in a chain of equally weak links, but, when her doorway filled and refilled with claimants, she lost the will to differentiate.

Some couldn’t walk. Others couldn’t see or hear or gather a fist to shake at the sky. Some moaned, and others laughed too loudly. Numbers of them seemed, to an untrained sensibility, absolutely intact. Yet, if she couldn’t see their black spots, she assumed they were internal, growing deep.

The children surprised her most. They looked from new eyes, yet she saw, or thought she saw, some glow of pain ignited there. She shepherded them gently, resting her hand lightly on the centers of their backs and guiding them to their places in the parade. Their weak smiles warmed her. They were unused to being touched.

By mid-morning the street in front of her house filled with people. At first she thought to organize them and place them in bands and layers and companies that might prepare them to move through the city. Quite a few would need to be carried, and, while wagons and carts and wheelbarrows appeared near her door, they weren’t enough. The less damaged would have to bear a load. Every time she considered instructing people, though, they fulfilled her instructions, lifting the frailest bodies as if they were spare wings. Soon she had no job at all because, without a thought, they knew what she wanted from them. They arranged themselves, and she altogether missed the signal when the parade started. Everyone knew to take the first step in unison, and they did, in raw silence, tipping their heads to look into the windows above the street as they passed by.

She didn’t see anyone in the windows. It appeared the entire town came out to walk in the parade. Perhaps whatever percentage believed they didn’t belong didn’t come near their windows. Maybe they sat at tables, eating or drinking and secure in their remove. She pictured them. They would settle into chairs. They would lift forks to their lips and wipe grease away with clean napkins. She registered odd pity as the throng marched through the narrow lanes winding past the town’s most formidable homes.

Her plans never included a destination, but suddenly, all together, the crowd stopped. When their footsteps died, circumstances they’d missed—the stir of air around them, a light chill, the slant of a veiled sun over slate roofs, birds’ shrieks, and a baby’s plaintive cry—occupied the world. She listened and gazed. They all did. As with all such moments, the instant barely held before it passed.

Then they dispersed. Some clasped hands or hugged before going, but none lingered long. The day moved toward noon. They vanished even more quickly than they gathered and left her on a corner far from her door, grateful, alone without feeling so lonely.

2 Comments

Filed under Allegory, America, Desire, Experiments, Fiction, Gratitude, Home Life, Hope, Identity, Kafka, Meditations, Metaphor, Parables, Prose Poems, Thoughts

The Golden Years

Teacher Effects Eternity - ThumbnailThe fourth in a series of five essays about my 32nd year of teaching…

We teachers affect eternity. We’re told so, and it’s true. Though I’ve always taught in small schools, you can multiply the average number of students per year by the years I’ve been in classrooms and reach, conservatively, 2,000 or so. That doesn’t seem large compared to eternal crowds gathered by public school teachers. Still, it’s a lot, and the memory of individuals in that crowd might suggest numbers matter. Classes and faces stick with me. Had I stayed at one school, children of former students would appear to resurrect recollections of their parents.

I appreciate notes and emails from ex-students. I’m pleased they remember me at all and moved they take the trouble to tell me so. Cards and letters go into a special file to bolster my confidence on dark days. I’m grateful. I am.

That said, eternity isn’t solicitous. She smiles when she pleases, and you cannot—cannot—ask for affection. She is coy because eternity continues. She isn’t finished, and perhaps your effect will wane. Maybe it’s waning now.

So gratitude won’t fuel careers. Imagine you desire wealth and find gold dust everywhere. Sure, it’s only dust, but it accumulates quickly—in a scoop of earth, in the still pools along a stream, on the bottoms of your boots when you walk home. You’re happy to put it aside in bags that gather by the door. Then, slowly, you notice supplies dwindling. And you no longer find the dust casually. It takes energy to shovel stream beds, to pan the soil. You know the process too well. Seldom do you find that boot-bottom gold anymore.

I’ll stop because I don’t like listening. I sound ungrateful. At first, teaching’s rewards came easily. I recognized I reached people and drew inspiration from it. Repetition, however, inured me to its pleasures. The once novel becomes regular, and the regular becomes, at times, tedious. If you’re going to pan for gold, you need either abundant returns or easy access.

The worst combination is inadequate returns for immense effort. Yet that’s what many teachers experience, particularly when, for good or bad reasons, their students start to see them as serviceable and undistinguished, another part of the place. “Oh, you have him,” I overheard a freshman saying in August, “hasn’t he been around for, like, forever?” She wasn’t talking about me, but I fear her 14 year-old “forever” might include me.

Go to sites offering advice on teacher burn-out, and they abound with inspiration for keeping yourself fresh and relevant, for capturing students’ curiosity. These sites suggest you teach familiar material in unfamiliar ways, choose new books rather than repeating ones you’ve encountered multiple times, experiment with new technology to revitalize students’ interest, organize your work and streamline your effort, come to school earlier so you can leave the job behind as you exit the building, find some hobby—perhaps keeping a blog—to curb obsessive thoughts about students’ progress, make a change by teaching new subjects or at new grade levels, and establish fixed times to talk to other teachers about their strategies for avoiding burnout.

Experienced in these methods—there are more,  but these I’ve tried—I see them as laborious access to once abundant gold. Perhaps it isn’t fair to group them under the command “Work harder” because the returns are greater. New books and subjects are intellectually stimulating, always exciting. Yet the start-up costs—studying and planning—wear you down when students may not know the difference or not appreciate fresh materials and methods any more than old. New technology is especially laborious, as adolescents tolerate trial and error poorly. Imagine watching someone tie his shoes for the first time.

Sometimes my mind drifts. I’m in a brownstone with eight to ten devoted young scholars. They love learning as I do, know its labors well, and turn simple instructions into brilliant, illuminating insight. We read new books together, and most discussion comes from students. They don’t worry as much about getting into college as they do about understanding what’s before them today. They use technology without worshiping it and don’t automatically equate “new” and “good.” Though I’m their teacher, I need no plans. I nudge them in one direction or another but mostly revel in their excitement, which isn’t admiration or appreciation for me but the joy of having the company of an enthusiastic guide.

Gold dust rains, and I don’t think about eternity or labor or exhaustion.

2 Comments

Filed under Aging, Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, Gratitude, Henry Adams, High School Teaching, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Resolutions, Sabbaticals, Sturm und Drang, Survival, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Worry