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Knowing

manifoil_rear_exposedEDLike most of my recent Tuesdays, fiction… of a sort anyway.

Once Vernon lived the same random existence you do. He woke with the day’s scheduled events ahead of him and, though he had hopes, he didn’t know how that budget presentation or routine dentist appointment might go. He thought surprises could intrude—good and bad moments he could not anticipate—as we all do. But he never accepted it.

You probably still believe as he once did, that life is fundamentally unpredictable. Vernon made science of his life. Mentally recording each variable and each outcome, he linked cause and effect clearly and closely until he brought them together in intimate embrace. He discovered simple connections—which foods gave him indigestion in what situations—and murky ones—what weather, timing, and posture would lead his co-worker to confess irrepressible affection and devoted passion…  despite (and beyond) all reason.

Mind you, saying he discovered causes isn’t saying he could make them so. Try as he might to align actions and results, some piddling thing often fell out of place. The difference between you and Vernon is that he always saw which one and grasped exactly and immediately what must change to create outcomes that, obvious to Vernon if not to you, must be.

This co-worker he thought about: Over the last month, a haircut on the wrong day, the sudden startle of lightning, an improperly intoned “good morning,” a splash in the washroom… all delayed the natural and inevitable effect of their meeting. A miffed expression and the puff of air stirred by flight alerted him when a destined moment passed. You might give up. Vernon regarded each squint and swallowed word as encouragement. They sent him looking for confluences that, properly managed, would yield fate.

Perhaps you’ve glimpsed Vernon’s great order, sensed a lock’s tumblers sliding toward their perfect relation and release, but Vernon’s perch near perfection was more than that. Locks are mechanical. Vernon’s conscious manipulation of every variable comprised the business of his every wakeful instant. The necessary elements and steps appeared as on a blackboard, a charted course of loops, arrows, and chains of boxes parading as to the edge of a cliff.

Occasionally Vernon considered speaking. At times, he ached to step in and express desire directly, but every operation he conceived depended on mystery. Fabric knows nothing of its weaver. The sun makes no deviations in its plans and entertains none. His co-worker’s guessing his aims would only interfere. Though his secrets were burdensome, they allowed belief in an organic end.

So you won’t be shocked to hear of the afternoon when autumn light slanted from golden leaves to Vernon’s face and the breeze tipped to the southwest to offer up fall’s bourbon decay and the temperature dropped by just more than a degree and an unseen dog’s plaintive yelp echoed through the office block’s canyons. Vernon’s words reached just the right tenor of elusiveness.

With one-eighth of a smile, his co-worker asked, “Okay if we stop for coffee?”

You will guess what happened next.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Allegory, Ambition, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Hope, Identity, Kafka, Love, Metaphor, Parables, Play, Resolutions, Revision, Solitude, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Voice, Writing

Passing Strange

sun-shining-through-the-trees-2179-1920x1080More fiction…

It was a forest of matchsticks, not literally but in the spent feeling of it, which he suspected came more from him than the place. After they’d eaten, he’d said he’d go for a walk and left before anyone volunteered to join him. The others were laughing about one of her stories when the screen door slapped behind him. The sun just approached the horizon, its rays taking the longest path to his face and shining with faint attention. He walked into it and then away from it on a twisting course, half squinting, un-squinting.

She didn’t love him, he felt that now. Nothing she’d said told him so, but her gaze bounced off him. Once they’d engaged eyes, but this visit felt oblique. She guided his best friend and his best friend’s wife with her hand at their elbows, navigated them about the kitchen, dipping in and out of zones set aside to chop and assemble. He watched. She offered him a role but in her sergeant’s voice. Affection found no place. Back in his apartment, she spoke still more instructively, and this public echo seemed painful, hurtful.

Likely it was not. He told himself so as he found his direction. The wood’s hints of wear offered many choices, each turning toward or away from a destination.

They’d spoken about not coming. “They’re my friends,” he’d said.

“It’s okay,” she answered. That was right.

Since they met, he’d hardly shut up. He spent every moment carrying future conversations, amassing observations and editing for wit. He knew exactly where she might laugh, the twist that would move her to touch him, to kiss him.

Who could say when he stopped being right? If he was right—sometimes he imagined the same light in her he’d seen before. He’d wanted to talk about it, but time plowed through every impulse. He always lagged just behind.

He’d thought of asking if she loved him, but he felt it forbidden territory. His closest approach was to encircle her after lovemaking as if he meant to absorb her like a part of himself. She sighed. He wondered what that meant—relief, contentment, resignation?

Whatever it was, he couldn’t know if it was her or him, this remote spot or his own remoteness. Though evening was well underway, heat lingered between trees, the last light tangled as between the teeth of a brush.

Ahead, the pale sky promised the openness of the lake, the familiar cabin. Even from there, he could hear voices, and he emerged with familiar dread. Birds quieted now, or he stopped listening. The wind wheeled in new directions. He knew he had to go in.

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Filed under Anxiety, Desire, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Grief, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Place, Rationalizations, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Worry

School, The Place

Amanda-Fire-Alarms-768x1024As I’m on sabbatical this year, I’ll be missing the opening day of school for the first time since 1962 when I was three and not yet old enough.

Because I’ve been through 32 school starts as a teacher, I know what will happen. Students will lope down auditorium steps, dressed in new clothes to fit their continually new bodies. They will talk excitedly without being obvious… or at least only to the point of being properly obvious. Some will look left and right for the safety of faces that will beam back recognition, then wave.

Teachers, they’ll largely ignore. Teachers will line up somewhere seen, maybe along the sides, or will shepherd students as they’ve been instructed and pretend to be unbothered by another year of conspicuous invisibility.

The hubbub will resist a few attempts at quiet, but the initial syllable of the initial solitary voice will assert that all these minds and hearts and hands and bodies are actually one school. Every opening day is a new start and reunion. At some point, the gears will catch and the machine will seem to have been in constant operation, but, for a few minutes, possibility reigns.

School is a strange place, a part of the world and also apart from it. Even the most unconventional school follows basic conventions. There are teachers—however overtly or covertly they’re involved in educating students—and classrooms—whether they take recognizable form or not. There are some students who want each teacher’s knowledge and can’t contain or hide the pleasure of learning, and some students who, though at the center of it all, watch the clock, and the whole process, with impotence, confusion, and fear.

Though school starts and ends and is only in session so long, the regular schoolhouse rhythm of hour, day, term, season, and year—no matter how it’s divided—takes over as if it were reality itself.

Doing any job for a long time defines you, but a school’s structure can become a second skeleton. When each year superimposes over the last, you see ghosts as well as human beings in your classroom. Those who once occupied this space are gone—you hear news they’ve grown up to study and work in faraway places—but they’re in the building too, in the hopes and horrors of the ones arriving… who are never so different. It’s easy for a teacher to begin believing school is the world or, at least, a concentrated version of it.

Of course it isn’t. School is also a rare enclave where people still trust unlikely outcomes and bet on personal and intellectual progress. That’s the excitement—a new year and a new day and a new class can really be new. Each year begins with hope. Though sometimes the wider world undermines and discourages teachers—telling them they’re lazy part-timers or cast-offs stupider than those they’re hired to teach or misguided dinosaurs hiding from real life behind yellowed notecards—no teacher without faith lasts long. I still have faith.

My experience tells me the first day will be exhausting. My colleagues will go home feeling as if they’ve survived a prizefight, but they’ll be restless as well, already attending to the next day. I won’t miss the relentless pace of my school, the snow of papers falling from September to December, January to June, or the constant news from outside that teachers aren’t good enough.

Clearly, I need a rest, but I’ll miss the aspirational DNA of school, the ambition that is mortar to the bricks. My uncrowded life will certainly be quieter and less frantic, which is quite okay, but maybe lonely too. I’m over the idea I’m affecting eternity, but I’ll miss students who, amid the hubbub, hope their teachers will have something important to say.

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Filed under Aging, America, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, Identity, life, Meditations, Memory, Place, Sabbaticals, Solitude, Teaching, Thoughts, Time, Uncategorized, Work

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.

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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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Don’t Thank Me. Please.

teachers desk in one room school largeSome students toss a quick “Thank you, Mr. Marshall” as they exit my classroom. When I describe this phenomenon to teachers from elsewhere, they’re envious my school fosters such gratitude and respect.

During my own high school days, I lingered after class. Discussion often reached the good stuff just as the bell rang, and any glimpse of my teachers as real people with real personalities and real curiosities excited me. I slowly collected my books, my notebooks, and my pens and pencils, eavesdropping on off-the-record responses to classmates or, if I was especially lucky, conversations with colleagues. Occasionally, a favorite teacher directed a post-class question to me, and—as a public school kid—I savored exclusive notice. I lived for being particularly loved. I’d trade a tardy for extra attention.

However, I never said, “Thanks.” I didn’t even consider it. I was either too self-absorbed—weren’t teachers there for me?—or too sensitive to being misunderstood—can a person actually mean such transparent brown-nosing? I prefer to believe my gratitude showed in participation and writing. I tried to tell my teachers I appreciated them by smiling, nodding, laughing.

I’m oddly embarrassed when students thank me. I devise various unsatisfactory rejoinders:

  • “Oh, please” which sounds too much like “more, more”
  • “Why do you feel you have to thank me?” which communicates distrust and paranoia.
  • “No, thank you” which fits an oily, mercantile version of education I loathe (besides being false).
  • “It’s my job” which is too cold and unfriendly, suggesting it’s just a job.
  • “You’re welcome, it’s nothing, my pleasure, anytime, think nothing of it, a trifle” which comes across as antic, perhaps flippant… especially if I say all of them together veryfast.
  • “Don’t thank me.” which—with a period—expresses my own ingratitude or, worse, leads the student to believe I’m hatching some sinister plan.
  • Staring a hole in the student is positively out. It’d land me in the headmaster’s office.

So I redirect my attention to shuffling my materials and mutter, “Sure.”

I always said “goodbye” to Ms. Raulerson, one of my beloved high school teachers. Her room was a marketplace where we haggled over information and ideas. Even in high school, a place that seemed absolutely artificial to my adolescent mind, she was genuine. She gave herself and convinced me someone could be a person and a teacher. In short, I loved her.

Which makes me think—what might she have said if I’d ended each period with “Thank you,” instead of “Goodbye” or “Have a great day” or “See you, Ms. R” or “Later”? Would she have thought “Thanks” unnecessary and possibly suspect—as I do—or would she accept it with grace I can’t muster?

At the end of the year, I wrote her a card saying how much I’d enjoyed her class. Since then, I’ve sent her a copy of an essay describing her influence on me. Yet I wonder if expressing appreciation later, after nostalgia fogs your recollections, makes praise more or less real, more or less heard. I wonder if she’d have appreciated more regular gratitude, especially on those dark teacherly days when class wasn’t quite what she hoped.

Each spring, as the rest of the school listens to speeches of candidates for next year’s offices, the seniors repair to a giant room to write thank you notes to their teachers. This year, for the first time, I didn’t receive any—not one—and didn’t know how to react, particularly when, standing in the teacher’s lounge, I could see colleagues’ mail slots full of them. Thanks aren’t why I teach, but that stung.

I told myself to calm down, to believe my sense that, most of the time, students know I care about them. I tried to recall my Raulersonian moments—however muted and inconsistent they sometimes seem in comparison. I pondered seniors well-prepared for college because of challenges they’d faced in my class. Yet self-assurance isn’t always enough. I wanted to stack daily thank you’s to dam my doubt. Suddenly I was desperate to believe casual thanks I’d been ready to disqualify as too easy and too empty.

And I worried. Do my students know I appreciate their thanks? Do they know how much their gratitude means, however it appears? As I’m off for the summer, I have time to think. What should I say to the first “thank you” next fall?

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Filed under Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, Gratitude, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, life, Memory, Recollection, Teaching, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Work, Worry