Category Archives: Gratitude

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.

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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

On Epiphanies

epiphany-1Everything you learn has a source, some known, some never, all linked to a moment of absorption or realization.

I prefer realization. It comes from inside you, seeds germinating at last or new shadows formed in fresh angles of particular suns. After all this time anything novel amazes me. That it waits, more so.

Much of what we know is strictly known. Intellectually we accept cells, plant cells have cell walls, organelles like mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum dwell in cells. When mitosis occurs, cells reproduce, and alleles split like puppets yanked back before a curtain falls between them. One is then two. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny (though not so much anymore), and, every seven to ten years or so, every cell sacrifices for its twin.

George Washington was our first president, and he was much loved.

None of it is visible, and so it’s belief truly, better than placing faith in four humors but otherwise not much different. I’ve seen films and peered through microscopes and never truly witnessed.

I remember sitting alone in a library on a Sunday doing Wednesday’s work. I saw a ball fly through the corner of a window. I saw it fly through again, its perfect white arc the path of a planet in a solid blue sky. And soon I gathered books and notes and found my way outside to complete a picture half seen, searching for terminal points. Without teaching, I’d discovered—we are meant to feel pleasure, to perceive with pleasure, to appreciate pleasure, and put aside work (at times) to honor pleasure as the greatest human glory.

Where did that knowledge originate? I might suggest a Guide, an entity outside myself, but, the experience seems broader—a conspiracy of circumstances, a moment meant to spring. That anything so novel arrived amazed me, that it waited, more so.

Epiphanies appear so thoroughly meant, as if knowing isn’t knowing but ripening. It sounds silly in so grandiose terms, but some moments visit unbidden.

And some unwelcome. Wincing realizations slice into your sense of myself, reminders of other mistakes, more half-steps into darkness.

I worry I’m saying what you know and make myself ridiculous by repeating the obvious but want to believe you’re with me. Feeling has more sources than knowledge. Who is unique? At this moment, something awaits encounter, a felt truth never taught.

After all this time something novel waits to amaze.

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Filed under Aging, Anxiety, Doubt, Epiphany, Essays, Gratitude, Hope, Identity, life, Meditations, Prose Poems, Resolutions, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Voice

Walking Around The Year

First birthday cupcakeA week of milestones:

  • the new school year starting
  • two history classes (I’m usually an English teacher)
  • my daughter going to college (and my wife and I becoming empty nesters)
  • this blog cresting 1,000 followers
  • 150 on both derelict satellite and Haiku Streak
  • reaching 365 posts on this blog

Some parts of life are furniture. Your job, the tasks of buying food and other essentials, central relationships, and weekly avocations can be moved around, but once you have a couch you generally keep it a while. When the urge to rearrange the room strikes, your aim is always to get it right at last, to set items in convenient and pleasing order. None of the list above constitutes a new room, a new state, or a new country. All are matters of furniture.

The last, reaching a year’s worth of posts, is no change at all because I wrote a post on Tuesday, and I’m writing one today. Yet, it means something that someone might set out to read a post a day and arrive at the end more than a year later. I’m not recommending such a tour—I’m sure you’d discover unflattering truths I’d like to hide, my retold stories, the finitude of my topics, every bête noire and psychological stumbling block, the many potholes in the quality of my thought or expression. Nonetheless it’s something. It means this blog has passed my previous one. It means I’ve posted here for almost five years. It means that, if every post were the size of this one, I’ve written 225,000 words or 750 pages.

And constancy is something. WordPress suggests you gain readers by posting at regular times and regular intervals. As this offering arrives later on Saturday than usual, clearly I’m not perfect. But my practice has been disciplined (or retentively fastidious, depending on how you see it). I’ve thought of stopping several times because why do I need more labor in my life and who is out there, really? Still, I’m writing two times a week (and every day on haiku streak and twice a week on derelict satellite too), fighting through doubts and frustrations and questions that really ought to be settled by now. After 365 posts, I still experiment, looking for something (sometimes anything) new to say.

This 366th post sounds the usual alerts that come with hitting anticipated moments. No figurative or virtual or literal balloons will drop from the ceiling but, if this blog were a TV series, it would be high-time for a clip episode. I’ve thought about how to celebrate. In honor of this occasion, for instance, I might address the five posts with the greatest number of visitors:

The first two were “Freshly Pressed” and the last three I suspect are fodder for plagiarists and image seekers, so that won’t do. More interesting to me might be posts I liked that received less than 10 views:

That list seems desperate. And these “Greatest Hits” are inexhaustible. I might create an obliquely confessional list, a truly confessional list, an antic list, a lyrical list, a written-for-language-alone list, an oddly resonant list, a list list.

In fact, I just have, in case you haven’t noticed.

Yet, when you write to practice writing as I do here, words pulse only briefly before dimming, the most ephemeral of lightning bugs. And next Tuesday will come, and I’ll have another post to offer. It’s hard to speak of a body of work when that body changes each moment. We note the circles of the sun largely to acknowledge experience. It’s nice sometimes to pause and look back. What lies ahead is as frightening as it is enticing. But I need to keep walking.

I hope, Dear Reader, you will go with me. It means so much to have company, and I deeply appreciate hearing your voices in my mind.

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Blogging, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Friendship, Gratitude, Home Life, Hope, Identity, life, Meditations, Memory, Resolutions, Survival, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Voice, Work, Writing

A Drink With My Brother

DRINKSI’ve never been as patient as I’d like to be, and recently less so. The blame rests partly with the pace of my life, which seems wired to split my attention and atomize my every attempt to ease my fretful existence.

Technology makes relentless activity possible, and none of us can do anything about the electronic landscape—the toothpaste is out of the tube, ground into the carpet, rubbed onto the walls, and diffused molecule by molecule into even the most remote parts of the world. But technology is not all the problem. You can shut devices down for a few hours. The issue is recharging yourself as devotedly as you do your devices.

Instant and ubiquitous access, gratification, and flexibility mean time has few anchors. I drift according to what I feel like doing right now because it seldom matters when you do anything. Life’s simple pleasures sometimes seem unimpressive because talking to friends, seeing movies, or playing games can occur any time you desire… and nearly all the time, if you desire that.

Lately I’ve been thinking about those regular social events that enticed earlier generations to celebrate life more deliberately—their high teas and tea ceremonies, their Sunday dinners with family, their ritual chores and seasonal obligations, their extended family picnics, even their network-mandated TV viewing.

Once you had to watch when things were on—though that would be annoying for us, it compelled people to spend time together and share common experience… and without multi-“tasking” on phones, laptops, and iPads.

Some people keep together time sacred, but I don’t. So last weekend, I sent my brother a proposal to start a remote cocktail club. We can’t meet—we live in different cities—but we can share making a drink even if we can’t drink it together. Each week, one of will offer a drink recipe—the more elaborate, the better—and we’ll try it. Not together, but we’ll share our outcomes. Just talking that much, I’m embarrassed to say, will necessitate communicating more than we usually do, but it will also hold us responsible for one weekly celebration of life. We’ll expand not only our liquor cabinets but also our knowledge and expertise. We’ll learn something, and possibly more than just how to make cocktails. We’ll slow down long enough to do something frivolous and fun.

You, dear reader, are welcome to join us. I’ve created a blog to record our journey, A Drink With My Brother: The Adventures of Two Not-So-Savvy Cocktailians. As the mission page says, “Big things start small. Maybe a few more casual celebrations can make the world a calmer place.”

One weekly cocktail won’t slow the unremitting rush of my life, but it’s an experiment worth trying. It will be strange (and nice) to schedule a little revelry.

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25 Unsent Letters to My First Best Friend

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My first thought today brought back Bolivar. When I stayed with you there, foghorns on tugboats pushing barges lowed in the Intracoastal Waterway. Even when I didn’t hear them, I held them in my head like thoughts loosely tethered together.

2.

If we saw a butterfly, bird, snake, or insect, one of my brother’s books would identify it. We leaned over the pages as if we were looking into a deep hole. We didn’t mind touching. The object of our search didn’t always appear, so we whispered to catalog everything we had seen, pointing and saying when and where we’d encountered it.

3.

Early on, I thought of friendship as gathering together-stories, the time we shot a mocking bird with your b-b gun and buried it so the police wouldn’t discover we murdered the state bird, or the time we cut sections of grape vine to smoke and coughed for a week, or the time we soaked your sister’s underwear, froze it, and returned it to her drawer.

4.

In my memory you never ask me to go to your house after school, never show up at my door to ask me to play, never say “Best Friend.” Our parents negotiate our visits and sleepovers. We have no plans. We account for time by being together.

5.

Mom says the school must have separated us because we’d be trouble together. You may recall that after first grade, we never sat in adjacent desks.

6.

Concentrating, I can bring back your scent. It hits me just as the first whiff of your house did when I walked through your door.

7.

Do you remember all the accidents I witnessed? I was present when you spilled boiling water on your chest, cut your foot jumping out of the window over your garage, split your knee open as we skim-boarded after a morning thunderstorm. Your mother was so calm. She sent me home as if we both needed soothing.

8.

I don’t do friendship well anymore, as it requires leaving the room of myself, something strangely challenging. But our hours seemed easy, as neutral as the sun’s indecisive attention to shadows on a cloud-crowded day.

9.

We must have fought but I don’t remember apologies.

10.

People in the neighborhood often mistook me for you, partly because we were the same size but mostly because we shared the same first name. Did you know when they meant me? Did you correct them?

11.

The depression in the center of your chest troubled me. Where my sternum was straight as a last yours seemed to leave no room for your heart to beat.

12.

During all the weekends I spent with your family in Bolivar, the house remained unfinished. When we returned from roaming the salt marshes looking for Jean Lafitte’s treasure, empty cans of Falstaff and Lone Star gathered near sites of fitful labor.

13.

Mom says your dad was one of the most handsome men she’d ever seen. She thought you and I looked alike, but I wasn’t sure she approved of you. Sometimes you can tell when, inside, someone sneers.

14.

When people use the expression “Something came between us,” I imagine a scary story you made up once about a husband and wife waking with a corpse.

15.

We saw the moon landing together. Of everything I’ve reported, I’m sure you don’t need to be told that.

16.

Later we shared friends. They were your friends first, then mine. Being with them when you weren’t present felt like winging around in a looser orbit. One punched me in the face when I beat him at basketball. Another invited a girl over so I could learn how to French kiss. One day, out with one of your friends, we broke into an empty house to smoke cigarettes and the cops came. You may actually have been there too. It feels like it.

17.

You convinced me to explore the network of cement storm sewer tubes crisscrossing under our neighborhood. You kept saying how surprised people would be when we suddenly appeared somewhere else. Girls would be impressed, you said.

18.

I just remembered the summer I invented a language you refused to speak.

19.

There must have been a day I stopped calling you my best friend.

20.

Maybe memory stumbles here, but I connect every friend to you. Not directly, because all those separate steps disappear, but in character—as if they stood in the same circle of smoke blowing from the same fire.

21.

When people run into other people who know people they know or are people they know, they say, “It’s a small world.”  Maybe that’s the biggest change since last we met. It hasn’t felt small enough for me in quite some time.

22.

One of my college roommates regarded friendship as a test. If you passed, you couldn’t un-pass. He took you on forever, though not really. I expected to finally relax but never overcame feeling indebted. When I tried to explain my discomfort to another roommate, I used you to demonstrate proper friendship. I’m ashamed I’ve exploited your memory for such petty causes.

23.

The summer I left our hometown, I imagined saying goodbye to you, but, by then, we barely knew each other and practicing our conversation was like talking with a ghost who’d left the attic long before.

24.

People brought me news of you after I moved away—some of it horrifying and heartbreaking—but those accounts were as fanciful as games we played as boys, when it was fun to imagine the neighborhood as a harsher, less forgiving landscape.

25.

I’ve never reinvented you as a character in a story. The few times I’ve tried to describe you in writing before now, the prose slipped from my grip like a kite that slackened and fell as soon as I stopped tugging.

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Coming Home

il_fullxfull.436891681_gdroHere’s the second 20-minute story I wrote during a writing workshop in Ohio. Though I have no great gift for fiction, I’d recommend this exercise to anyone interested in stretching their skills. Something about being in the crucible of the moment makes you focus on the essential elements of a narrative.

Mom wore an expression I recognized—the wary one she once showed strangers who dared to approach me in a playground or anyone who asked for “a moment of her time”—and she gripped Dad’s arm just above the elbow.

“May we help you?” Dad asked.

I moved to gather the backpack and duffle bag I’d dropped to ring the bell, and they stood squarely in the doorframe.

“How’re you guys? I had a break in the semester and—“

Sometimes you look into a different face when you deliver news it didn’t know or when you disprove facts it’s repeated confidently for years.

My parents’ faces steeled.

“Excuse me?” Dad said. My mother pulled herself closer to him. “Do we know you?”

“Jesus, Dad!”

They blocked my way as if I were our cat, instinctively and with a mind to try as many times as necessary. I should have visited sooner, but school work rose like walls before me. I’d just found time to see my way through.

“Look,” I said, “I’m sorry. I should have called, but—”

“I don’t know you, but if you try to come in here, we’re calling the cops!”

Sometime, my mother left him, retreating into the house, and her flight alerted me to all that was altered. The table in the entry hall was Pennsylvania Dutch instead of sleek Danish, adorned with a plastic bouquet in a teapot instead of three gray paper flowers in a glass vase.

“Dad.”

I might have stood there longer, implored longer, insisted whatever prank should end, but my mother returned wielding a handgun and shouting for me to leave.

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Filed under Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Gratitude, Home Life, Identity, Memory, Metaphor, Parenting, Writing

About Bob

5200159769_33ab841800_zAt a recent writing workshop I attended in Ohio, our instructor led us through a number of fruitful exercises, including the 20-minute stories popularized by McSweeney’s. I’ll be sharing the results for my mid-week posts over the next month or so. These stories have been edited since I wrote them, but minimally… particularly this one!

WARNING: These are strange. Please don’t worry about me.

x

Bob rubbed chicken fat under his arms. It was something he’d always done and never said so. Since he’d married Claire, he’d thought repeatedly about confessing. “Listen Claire,” he’d say, or “By the way, Claire,” or “Claire, you want to hear something funny about me you don’t know?”

Claire was his first, his only love. They met one moonless night at the Dairy Queen lot. She dropped the chocolate-coated dome of her cone to the asphalt and cursed a streak of colorfully jimmied words. Then she spied him leaning on the hood of his car.

She looked at him dolefully, “Fate cooperates once again to bring my dismay, alas.”

Because she’d spent her last dollar, he bought her another ice cream, and they talked. As they conversed he felt the ooze at his sides like loosening worry. He noticed the smell for nearly the first time.

“I could really use some fried chicken,” Claire said, idly.

Chicken fat does nothing for perspiration, nothing for hygiene in general or well-being. Bob didn’t even regard it as fetish anymore, just routine.

7:35 am: chicken fat.

After marrying Claire, however, he created a ritual. The tub of fat needed obtaining, needed hiding. It’s application needed timing and perfect privacy. Every day Bob feared discovery.

Though he succeeded in decreasing the amount, he couldn’t do without chicken fat altogether and told himself every marriage should have secrets. “It’s my mystery,” he whispered to himself.

The day Bob came home to discover Claire’s dresser drawers open and empty, he ran first to his clandestine spot under the sink, but there it was, the tub of chicken fat still hidden, its contents untouched.

Bob cried for a time at the kitchen sink before relief flooded in.

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