Tag Archives: Meditation

A Journey of a Thousand Sentences

3D team standing togetherIn my first decade of teaching I created thousands of sentences. English—it was “Language Arts” then—required a mechanical mind. To stay ahead of students, I needed to deconstruct rules of usage I’d previously only sensed, and each quiz called for advanced mimicry of the battery of sentences in the grammar text.

“Clam digging is a blast,” Don said to Larry, “if you’re an amateur.”

Making sentences was fun, and not just because of the new vocabulary to describe parts of speech, agreement, punctuation, conjugation, and phrases and clauses (relative, subordinate, and independent). Students expected so little of my sentences—the content was so clearly secondary as to be invisible—I devoted myself to writing little stories, evocative, ironic, whimsical, mysterious.

In a moment of particular exhilaration, Veronica threw her hands in the air and cried, “Who would have thought fish sticks had so many other uses?”

Sentence-making still haunts me, but, as an English teacher, I’ve moved on. The hothouse approach to writing instruction is passé. We no longer believe you write well by putting your commas in the right place, and, rather than invent imaginary problems and drill, drill, drill, we teach usage by exploiting students’ own sentences. Meta-language has all but disappeared. The word “appositive” means nothing to most seniors, and if I say, “You need ‘which’ here because the subsequent phrase is nonrestrictive,” their faces sag. Discussing edits requires more resourcefulness. We employ plain speech and organic responses suited to the real world, not dusty Latinate taxonomy.

He began to believe the general outlook—that so many suffered for so few—and decided not to contribute to cruelties designed to appease the elite.

Most of my students haven’t been trained to think about writing as I do. Some recognize the shape and feel of a well-constructed sentence, but most form big pictures and regard smaller components like sentences as necessary… and incidental. Though they seem pleased when I note a deft and elegant expression of an idea, they also seem surprised. Later they may manipulate language more, but, right now, success arises from serendipity more than polish.

At first I overachieved even at overachieving, but then I learned: the more open-ended my expectations, the more liberated I felt.

I’m not judging. Quite the contrary. My devotion to parts isn’t better. Once the lessons of diagramming sentences became muscle memory to me, clarity and impact seemed to spring entirely from syntax. Writing well only required varying structure and rhythm. I began to swing between sentences like Tarzan choosing vines—the next told me where next to go. While my students think of the whole, my habit is to unroll the whole, sentence by sentence.

She took her parents, teachers, and bosses seriously when they said she just had to do her best. Turns out, she had to do what others considered her best.

Knowing where you are now doesn’t always get you somewhere. A new active verb, a turn toward quirky diction, ringing parallelism, surprising inversion, and exhaustive items in a series won’t rescue banality. They may relieve the tedium of reading but rely on accretion adding up. Sometimes, that hope fails. At each gap after a period—one space or two doesn’t matter—you start again. Composition morphs into a one step process, over and over.

You hope abstraction distills truth but may extract poison instead.

A friend who frequently reads my work commented that my sentences take me to the brink of trouble—they reach impossible places—and then find another step. He’s too kind, but he describes perfectly what my writing feels like, which is paving a road one stone at a time. When it doesn’t work, I have no aim besides labor. When it does, I travel by imagining another footfall.

Beneath an open window, computer keys sound like the empty vocalizations of a chattering monkey.


Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Ambition, American Sentences, Art, Desire, Education, Essays, Grammar, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Rationalizations, Revision, Teaching, Thoughts, Voice, Work


Pinned-Moths_LGIn a recent dream I found my limbs crossed under rubble—arm rested on arm and leg on leg and no moving them. And when I shifted in bed to relieve the thought, my neck hinged with all the weight of my body above it, loading it. Moving once more, the hinge transferred to my waist. I couldn’t unbend because this dream was cramped, no room remained.

Waking was wonderful. Having so much space relieved me, and I walked downstairs, drank a glass of water, and traveled back to my bed again, banishing the dream and reminding myself of the square feet of my home, my comfort and safety. I slept well after that.

I’m unclear why this dream visited or what it meant to say. We’re all prone to those cul-de-sacs that unsettle sleep, sick dreams with stuttering plot lines reveling in futility. An arm pinned beneath me, an extra fold of pillow, an overused posture may have started it, or something less physical. Maybe the day’s frustrations butted into corners again. Maybe earlier conversations turned on themselves, and spun like drunks stuck between walls.

As a fifth grader, I used to ride my bike to school and, nervous even then, I’d wake too early just to assure I’d set off in time. My clock radio clicked, and nearly every day—heavy radio rotation being what it was—I heard “Everybody’s Talkin’” by Harry Nilsson, a song I only understood as tone, his grayish brown moaning akin to clouds hanging over Texas City, the next town over, home of Union Carbide and Monsanto refineries.

Just as now, sleep seemed better. Why should I get up? My dreams hadn’t granted much respite, and the day promised little. Harry Nilsson couldn’t even make words, going “Wahh, Waaahh-wa-waaah-wahn-wah” and dooming the next hours before they started. Oh, what gratitude I felt when, for whatever reason muster-able, I wouldn’t have to go. Absolved, I’d sleep again. In complete peace.

Not much has changed. The importance of routine makes a bigger impression now that I’ve grown up—I know how daily workouts or a regular schedule or positive patterns of waking and sleeping add up. And I don’t really want to not work. Yet affirmations don’t make tedium easier. Though nearly every 7:15 am finds me sitting at my desk, slumped over a stack of papers, the greatest reprieve is still turning, stretching, and returning to sleep.

But you shouldn’t admit that. I think sometimes how far we are from early humanity and what they may have felt with no alarm to wake them. They must have had their own anxieties—like being hunted and mauled—but all of what we call progress could mean nothing to them. We might explain it. They might understand, and then ask, “And, that’s better because…?”

We make more and more, not just physically but conceptually, so much so our inventions seem material, the necessities that are truly fabricated and the obligations written in stone that really belong in sand. We can’t give ourselves a break. We can’t rest.


Filed under Aging, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Home Life, Identity, Insomnia, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Time, Worry

Standing in the Way

water-pipeBetween emails, marginal scrawl in books and on compositions, writing here and elsewhere, plus college recommendations demanding attention this fall, I’m producing a torrent of words. Sometimes I’m unsure if I’m the pipe or standing in front of it, meeting its relentless affront.

There’s no valve.

I like words and find I can understand and say little without them. Still I long sometimes for wordlessness, a vacation when I uncover an essay I’d meant to post and forgotten, when a poem surfaces pristine from the swamp of past work, or a letter appears from my sleep whole and otherworldly. Of course that never happens. Sentences demand assembly. They don’t present themselves. They’re summoned. They insist on being new.

People occasionally ask me if I’d like to make a living as a writer, and I think I would. But prose is so insistent, such a bossy presence, I worry I’d wallow in obligation and necessity. The life of a real writer is strange—what if words were everything, not just an urge or visitation but obsession, compulsion as deep as breathing? Perhaps it’s better to slum with words, better to vamp, better to blog.

The writing I like best is haiku. My attention to my subject is minute or distant or abstract and I can shape an aloof impression that’s not quite the thing but mimics its effect. The rest of writing means to clad its subject like polystyrene, hugging close, intending never to let go… though I want only to cast.

I like to let go. My best moments arrive when the narrowest light illuminates a subject. The rest of the time, I’m adjusting, adjusting, adjusting to stand something in the sun. Each movement suggests more manipulation, exploitation, intention. It’s work when it ought to be natural, as natural as speaking or being.

At its best, writing is revelation, the proper thing presenting itself at the proper time. I feel that state when I write haiku, as if I only uncovered what’d been buried. I might write “blank” to fill a syllable and the space instantly fills, as if the solution waited for worrying to pause. Some fate delays… and then is here.

Wanting to do well is hardly a help. When I’m writing something I know important, I stand at the doorway of a sentence or phrase or word for ten minutes. When the task is going right, only being receptive matters. If  the words shoot as from a fire hose, I accept them. They may know what I don’t. They intend to expose what I wouldn’t see without words.

I don’t know if I’ll ever understand “my process,” if “my process” exists at all. But understanding I’m part of what emerges helps me accept what appears.  The torrent has its own direction, its own compulsion, its own being. I’m in it but also watching, wondering at what I see.


Filed under Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Essays, Haiku, Hope, Identity, Kenko, Meditations, Thoughts, Voice, Work, Writing

The Trouble With Belief

02C63D43DA01429AB0C4B1E2D38FE38CIn college, friends would sometimes say, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” Had I been the scoffing sort then, I might have grilled them to discover what they meant.

Instead, I said, “Me too.”

Now, as then, not even that is accurate. I’m not sure I accept spirit. Belief comes hard for me. I have to scratch it from the reluctant clay of reason, one assertion and another and another. If I can agree something is so then something else might be, which means something else… and so on. My hands are full of supposition, taking no shape but what a mind can form of it.

In my classes, I sometimes suggest a distinction between recognition and realization. One is chiefly rational and the other emotional. Macbeth can consider the consequences of killing King Duncan. He can outline the reasons he shouldn’t and balance them against the plan proposed by his wife. In other words, he can recognize the meaning of the murder, completely and coldly. Not until he kills Duncan, however, does he feel what he’s done and sag under its gravity. His realization awaits the marriage of reason and emotion.

Belief for me has been largely recognition.

I’d prefer realization.

Recently a friend sent me an illuminating e-mail. I’d been talking, in a figurative sense, about getting most of my exercise from kicking myself around the block, and she suggested one fundamental need addressed by religion is explaining a person’s existence. Faith justifies the presence of a self and self-awareness, accounts for the burden of living and presents validation greater than any available by pure cognition.

It sounds complicated (and perhaps I haven’t understood her), but it makes a sort of sense. If you want to find a place, you have to believe in something bigger than the space you occupy. No fantasy, no mental castle in the air, no rational palace, will house you for long.

In July, in an avowed “Book report,” David Brooks wrote of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age that, in an age of humanistic rather than religious experience, we experience many benefits, yet:

…these achievements also led to more morally demanding lives for everybody, believer and nonbeliever. Instead of just fitting docilely into a place in the cosmos, the good person in secular society is called upon to construct a life in the universe. She’s called on to exercise all her strength.

This shift in consciousness leads to some serious downsides. When faith is a matter of personal choice, even believers experience much more doubt. As James K.A. Smith of Comment Magazine, who was generous enough to share his superb manuscript of a book on Taylor, put it, “We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.”

I’m certainly Thomas. I think often of joining the local Buddhist temple because its belief comes closest to my thinking. The trouble is acting. The trouble is lying down before what seems constructed—one of many choices. Doubt lingers nearby, whispering, “Is this it?”

Life seemed much easier when I could call myself “spiritual” without commitment. It was plain. Now, the afternoon dims to gray, and my mind slips into its wake, equally low and dim in a calm welcome to diminishment and silence. “This,” I think, “is religious. I’m somewhere outside myself now.” Then some definition gathers in my brain, and the moment passes.

If I could hold, as people did in 1500, the fundamental assumption of God, that moment might last. But we don’t live then, and what rumination will bring me back? That part of my brain doesn’t talk enough. It keeps peace a secret.


Filed under Buddhism, Doubt, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Religion, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Worry

Father Math

My father was 30 when I was born, a nice round number that should make it easy to say where he was and what I was doing when he was my present age. Yet I struggle with the math and have to do it anew every time I compare us. And the past is murky. Mine is clear enough, but my father at my present age is mysterious. I wasn’t paying attention, though wish I had been.

This week, on Halloween, my son turned 21, a number that sneaked up on me and might have sneaked up on my father as well, though he had seen three children hit 21 before I arrived at that milestone. By the time I turned 21, my father had watched five children leave home for college. Three were already working, financially independent and well gone. I understand now what relief he might have felt, and how empty the house must have seemed, and how it must have felt to be nearing the end of that part of his life.

His father, my grandfather, was my present age—54—when my father was born. My grandfather and his wife started late, and my father arrived as the last of five brothers. The first died in the flu epidemic of 1917, one dropped from the sky in World War II, and only three lived when my father reached my present age. I don’t know if they were close, whether they talked, whether they shared the sense of time fleeing, whether they missed their father or barely thought of him.

I didn’t really talk to my son on his birthday. I sent him a text: “Welcome to your majority, Mr. Marshall.” He sent a couple of confused texts back, and I had to explain the legal meaning of “majority” (one who’s no longer a minor, eligible for inheritance and full legal rights) and why he was “Mister” instead of “Master.” The exchange was much too complicated, and I’m sure he didn’t care much. I understand.

My father would have been my last thought at 21. With so much ahead, I barely looked back, and, though I felt considerable affection for my father, I barely knew him. I sometimes wonder if my son feels he knows me. I wonder if he wants to know me more, as I wish I might know my father more. My son’s life is so exciting, and mine not, really. Just as, when I was in college, I groaned inwardly when my mother passed the phone. What could my father have to say—what really changed in his life?

My grandfather, 84 the year I was born, hardly seems real at all except that my younger brother requested his records from college, and I’ve seen his immaculate handwriting clinging to the lines of his college application. He graduated in 1898.

My son will graduate in 2014, 116 years after my grandfather. Sometimes our generations seem to swim in different dimensions, my grandfather, my father, my son, and me. We meet in shadowy overlaps, layers of future and past that seldom accommodate the present. I often feel the urge to tell my son about his future, but then it seems as futile as telling my father, dead since 1993, about his past. We only understand where we are. Maybe that’s right.

This weekend I intend to call my son, ask about his birthday celebration and bridge gaping time and place again. I remember my own 21st birthday, not as though it were yesterday, but as though it still matters, and I hope I’ll be able to tell my son so. We do so much these days that reaching birthdays hardly counts, but they do count. They are more time together, and, even if we are not exactly together, years layer like pages of a book bigger than any of us.

They are the lives all of us have, do, and will lead. They are all of us, even if in our own time, living.


Filed under Aging, Birthdays, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Thoughts