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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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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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Intermittence

par-intermittence-5846321. Sometimes I find myself staring and seeing nothing.

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2. Sometimes the pool of the world fills as from a spring pouring out of the last shovel strike.

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3. Sometimes the operations of my neighborhood—the trains and dog-walkers, the people loitering on stoops or shifting their weight as they stand beside locked cars—seem the working parts of a vast clock that only winds up.

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4. Sometimes a breeze turns as from some new impulse and urgency.

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5. Sometimes the moon seems to watch.

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6. Sometimes I have to close my eyes because fathoms-deep tides pull me under and, try as I might, their insistence is irresistible, the pleading voices of souls seeking company and solace.

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7. Sometimes, when walking seems new to children, I wait to see parents take their hands.

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8. Sometimes ice on the lake undulates the way the earth must during a quake, and, watching, I’m momentarily disoriented, my own legs wobbly.

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9. Sometimes, when a cold gust raises tears, I’m happy for the relief.

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10. Sometimes I imagine saving the sun from stampeding clouds.

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11. Sometimes the sun burns through the hardest ice.

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12. Sometimes unguarded people allow our eyes to linger.

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13. Sometimes, if my trip to work is full of images, sounds, and smells, they drown my thoughts and urge acquiescence and sacrifice.

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14. Sometimes snow flurries are so small and random, they remind me how much I long for mayflies.

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15. Sometimes I see empty storefronts, their windows expansive and vacant, gaping almost jealously at passers-by.

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16. Sometimes a shout from nowhere reminds me I’m really not alone.

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17. Sometimes people insist I listen.

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18. Sometimes I wonder if it might be a relief to be deaf.

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19. Sometimes branches move only when you watch.

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20. Sometimes cars lurch through intersections with visible resistance and sometimes they punch a new hole in that direction.

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21. Sometimes gray appears most of the world.

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22. Sometimes the parts of a broken glass seem to long for one another.

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23. Sometimes I do and don’t want more.

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24. Sometimes a flapping sail feels restless and sometimes reluctant.

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25. Sometimes my brain thirsts for color the way you want salt.

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26. Sometimes I forget the day started with my sitting on the edge of the bed willing myself to rise and silence the alarm and praying it might silence itself or, at least, only be part of a dream interrupted.

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27. Sometimes everything looks already made.

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28. Sometimes actors bow days after the show is over.

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29. Sometimes the sun’s exit is perfect.

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30. Sometimes sometimes doesn’t seem often enough and other times too often.

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