Category Archives: Summer

It’s Okay If You’re Not Listening

imagesA fellow blogger once told me, “Don’t expect too much from summer.” She meant visitors, not summer in general.

She’s right about visitors. Something happens in June, and those WordPress bar graphs flatten to foothills. My first two years of blogging, I worried I’d said something so heinous no one liked me anymore. Now the summer lull is a familiar pattern, and, being a grizzled veteran of the sport of blogging, I accept readers’ attention wanes when the weather encourages healthier alternatives to reading angsty, self-doubting prose.

You can hardly look at an overcoat when it’s boiling out. I get that.

In fact, I more than accept the quiet. I relish it as a resort town must sigh through October or the babysitter must claim the whole couch between lights out and parents’ return. It’s not that I relax so much as I don’t worry about relaxing.

Blogging and publishing offer very different companionship. Real writers must imagine readers. In contrast, bloggers can usually guess how crowded the room is and adjust their volume and tempo, maybe even whisper because more intimate speech is okay right now.

Over the last six months or so, I’ve sent some writing away, and all of it has returned with “No thanks.” So perhaps I’m telling myself summer’s drought shouldn’t be ego-killing the way those rejections are. The alternative is believing I have nothing to say. Maybe I have nothing valuable to say sometimes, but I do desire speech. I want to say something.

And a strange relief arises when less is at stake. The less important the end, the more enjoyable the means. Why not be experimental or confessional or meta-conditional or plainspoken?

Writing is like swimming. It’s strange imagining someone inventing a way to cross a river, but someone must have. Conventional strokes—freestyle and breaststroke and butterfly—have well polished efficiencies, and they work. They aren’t the only means to reach another shore, however. Trying other methods might be embarrassing, but you could dream up something if you didn’t worry about looking like a fool. Plenty of brilliant writers master conventional syntax to compose lovely prose, but others revise the rules. Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce all swim oddly.

Probably because they didn’t care and worried little about readers—who readers might be or how they might react to their beautiful fumbling.

Our MFA age is more homogenous, full of MacPoems, MacShort Stories, and MacNovels acceptably well structured, thoughtful, and forgettable. Hell, you might be reading a MacEssay right now. The “focus group” and “workshop” sometimes seem oddly named, as they often center on acceptability instead of vision or idiosyncrasy.

“I don’t mean to be mean,” I hear a classmate criticizing Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, “but aren’t these opening pages just a lot of throat-clearing?”

Fumbling isn’t always beautiful, but it’s more human than self-consciousness generally permits. I realize all my efforts to “get myself out there” and “learn what editors want” may improve my work because I’ll learn to appraise and revise what’s invisible to me now. But solitude—or an intimate gathering of friends—can be helpful too, especially if I can become comfortable with throat-clearing as I learn to sing.

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Filed under Ambition, Blogging, Desire, Ego, Essays, Fame, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, MFA, Modern Life, Rationalizations, Summer, Survival, Thoughts, Time, Walker Percy, Work

Back At It Again

school-bus-1024x767Daniel Hefko, my Facebook friend (and I hope my real friend too) posted the other day:

I have been, all morning, like a bee in a field of clover at the end of summer, drinking in the ink of one book and then another—a small store of sweetness swells invisibly inside me.

Beautifully put.

We’re both teachers watching our final days of summer lapse, and, like most teachers, I’m torn between preparing for the first day and relishing these last moments, gathering sustenance for sparse months ahead. I wrestle sometimes with summer’s purpose. Are June, July, and August supposed to be productive or recuperative? Should I row for all I’m worth or glide on the glassy time granted me?

Whichever, I often reach summer’s end dissatisfied. I don’t do enough with what I should be thankful for, or I do too much to feel rejuvenated. I’ve had plenty of practice but have yet to get these months right. In June, the previous school year seems soul-crushing. In August, the year ahead feels overwhelming. You tell yourself the initial class, the compulsion of a syllabus, a pile of ungraded homework will get you going, but year by year it becomes harder. My cistern drains as quickly as it fills. Wanting to be ready is seldom enough.

As Dan suggests, maybe the secret is eluding the idea of labor, understanding that ink sustains us. Loving learning and curiosity keep us moving. On the first few days I return from break, I feel wonderful if I’m satisfied by my answer to “How was your summer?” I want to be ready to discuss encounters with new places and books and people. Students return changed by every break, and keeping up with them would signal a perfect sojourn for me. Revelation is the soul of learning. My students grow physically as I never will again, but their new stature and faces are as metaphysical as they are physical. They remind me—experience ought to penetrate.

The bee Dan describes can seem a fickle guide. Some summers I sip flowers chaotically. A stack of half-read books piles on my bedside table. The starts of multiple projects lie about. Lists of aspirations sit poorly crossed-out or lost altogether. Though I try to remind myself range and depth are important, ignoring shortfalls proves difficult—I started with such high hopes!

But perhaps it’s a matter of being instead of achieving, I tell myself. Maybe a teacher needs reminding of the essential pleasures of having a brain. Teachers need to relearn the mind’s operations and whims and discoveries. Maybe the “small store of sweetness” Dan describes doesn’t have to be stored so much as savored. The grasshopper—the one who sang the gathering season away—may not have wasted his time. He may simply have used those months differently than the ants, to remind himself that, no matter the conditions of the weather or the world, living vividly counts most.

Some moment in November, I will try to remember August. College recommendations will be due soon, and the endgame of the semester and all I have yet to accomplish will loom. I’ll try to recall being a bee, the field of clover then so far away. I’ll try to bring back the taste of ink and its essential value—its sweetness—and nutrition. I may not succeed. I may regard these summer months as wasted. But if, as Dan suggests, I can bring back that store—its substance and its memory—perhaps I’ll be okay. Some “swelling” will persist still, maybe not what I hoped to save but what I can appreciate as on-going, the life of a scholar, its pleasures and profits.

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Resolutions, Summer, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Worry

About 500 Words on Rain

derecho_evolution-300x225One day last week, I awoke to a deluge, the sort that fires water as from hoses, and I turned over and closed my eyes again. I’d planned to get an early start, but… too late. In a city, umbrellas protect your top half—hard rain bounces from surfaces and soaks you shoes to waist. The French say, “il pleut comme les vaches qui pissent,” or “it’s raining like cows pissing,” and a Midwest variant of that picturesque description adds, “on a flat rock.”

If you don’t have to go out, you shouldn’t. As it’s summer, I had time to idle a little. Later, when I went to the window, I watched the corners of the nearest intersection become steeplechase water jumps. Soon cars crossed through a pond. And still the rain fell. To use another French expression, “Il pleut des cordes.” It rained ropes.

Some people love rain, love being snug inside, under cover, away from thunder, lightning, and wind. I’ve known enough leaky windows and roofs to fear storms even then. Mother Nature is stronger than shingles, tarpaper, brick, mortar, wood, and nails. Water finds a way.

Plus rain erodes me over time. A few years ago, the Tribune reported that, in one month, Chicago had seen 12 minutes of sun. That figure must have came from a machine, but I pictured a despondent soul in a parking booth, stopwatch in one hand, his head in the other, leaning out a window, wistfully staring at the sky, waiting. When it rains days in a row, I’m that despondent soul, just as gray inside as outside.

Those convinced of nature’s indifference watch rain without worry, but I attribute intent to all of nature’s workings. The trouble exceeds particulates crowding clouds or an atmosphere that industry and car exhaust charge with CO2. It goes beyond us. When it rains this hard, something means to do me in.

Silly, I know. Says more about me than rain, clearly. Some feelings, however, come before you can block them, and, once they penetrate, percolate. You have trouble getting them out when they’re in.

When I was young, a friend’s mother said, “You’re sweet as sugar, but you won’t melt” and sent me home in a storm. I ran, in tears, cringing at electricity I imagined in the air, leaping at the lowest rumbles or palest lightning. Of course, rain often catches me in the city, and I accept it. But I’m no less timid, clinging to buildings and rushing between awnings.

Rain worries me, though it waters crops, fills reservoirs, and brings May flowers. I have too much in myself.

Later in the day, the line of storms (the paper called it a derecho) flew through, and the sky returned to a jeweled blue. The temperature dropped degrees, and breezes kicked up. I left the house, committed to overlooking my tardiness, and sidestepped all remaining puddles on my way.  I tried to forget, as I always do, life was ever anything but bright.

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Filed under Anxiety, Chicago, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Place, Prose Poems, Summer, Survival, Thoughts, Voice, Worry