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Friday, February 26, 2010

Of the yellow, electric commonplace

There came a moment after the sudden burst of applause from around the corner, and after a few people had drifted past me towards refreshments, when I was suddenly overwhelmed by no uncertain fear: I knew, at that particular moment, that I would give anything to not end up like "them"--always waiting for the next small ceremony in the middle of a work week, trying to liven up the hum-drum with bright yellow coats and the addition of an electric guitar for background music, worrying vainly about the endless succession of meetings and petty battles left unwon.

It is not often that I am granted a sense of what I don't want--I tend to know more about what I like, love, or desire (for instance, I know that I like coffee, love reading, and always desire more of both!)--but on the occasions when that sense of the negative comes, it's overpowering and it lasts, tinging the corners of my mind for the rest of the day. It also makes me feel guilty: who am I to render judgment on this particular group of nameless people and their assortment of perfectly acceptable day jobs? Perhaps they aren't always waiting for the next best thing or stewing over minutiae; perhaps they love their jobs; or maybe the hum-drum doesn't bother them because, at the end of the day, they can still go home to their families.

So I convince myself that I am probably better off refraining from judgment. Instead I will just conclude by saying that the other day I had a vision of something I didn't want: I imagined myself living for and in the mundane with no hope of escape; and, regardless of what anyone else is doing, I don't want that for me. Ever.

I told someone the other day that a little part of me would die if I'm never able to teach, but I know that a bigger part of me would die if my job turned into a series of rote maneuvers executed throughout the interminable turning of the weeks and terms and years. I want to elude complacency. Petty battles and quotidian meetings are almost certainly headed my way, but they don't have to become my priority. The beautiful thing about priorities is that I can choose them, if only I have the perseverance to remain alive to my possibilities.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dinner of intrinsic value

Have you ever noticed the tracing of bare branches against a winter sky? Yesterday evening we capitalized on the last remaining hours of fair weather and held a picnic beneath the leafless trees and the great arching canopy of light. We lit candles, uncorked wine, broke bread. As the gloaming deepened into night, we traced the limits of the universe with our words, and when it grew too cold, we moved inside. Whether or not that fire in the student lounge was allowed, we lit one and sat around it.

Officially, we had titled this our "dinner of intrinsic value," but so far we had only dispensed legal advice, discussed the existence of musical notes, and wondered at the ability of some of our professors to make us rise to challenges we would have never dreamed of meeting. Now we wanted to know: what is the relationship between intrinsic and instrumental value, and why is instrumental value quantifiable while intrinsic value is not? We argued hotly; I almost gave up; and then, just before I began to doubt myself, he folded his cards. "I never do this," he said. "But your argument is just too good." So we paused, a grateful, deeply satisfied silence, and she said, "Thank you." Not really because we had won our argument, but because, collectively seeking, we had found.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

This is procrastination in the February sun

I spread blankets on the grass outside and pretend to read, but really I'm inviting a tan and dozing. In the face of such brilliance, the rest of my work life tends to fade away. I have an application essay to write in German and an assortment of homework assignments, but, though the spirit is willing (in a manner of speaking), the flesh is oh so weak; I confess that I would rather be reading poetry.

This is my favorite week of February--of Winter Term, really. The part of the story where the clouds clear (even if only briefly) and the blue shows through.

Monday, February 08, 2010

This is not a pity-party (the years are too far gone for that; the pain is not really mine), but this week is the anniversary of a few things, and I would like to point out that February has not been kind to some of the young people in my life. They deserved better than what they got and are getting. This year two of them would have 19 and 22; and for another, more recently, these years of grace have been infected by something that seems insurmountable.

The problem of evil is dodging my footsteps this term. It has followed me into the classroom, pestered me at my thesis-writing, come tapping in the midst of a poem.

Once, years ago, I asked, "Why? Can't you give me a reason? Any reason at all?" (Because, even then, I was all about being rational and approaching things critically.)

And he looked very thoughtful and then said, honestly, "No, I can't. But I think that sometimes if you're asking 'Why?,' you might be asking the wrong thing."

"So what should I ask?" I wanted to know, but he couldn't--or wouldn't--answer.

I am still not sure what the appropriate question is. More and more, I have come to think that some things leave us appropriately, devastatingly speechless. And to try to fill that space with reasoned words is to do ourselves a disservice.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Gift of possibility

To the professor who came up to us during lunch yesterday, the one whose name I don't know:

May I tell you something beautiful?

My Saudi Arabian friend had reached up to wrap her hijab more snugly about her head; she was talking about the women's basketball game she went to with her husband on Saturday. I wanted to know if she had played basketball before, and she said, "No. But when I saw the women out there running, I knew that I could do that, that I wanted to do that." But, she added, gesturing to the hijab, basketball was clearly out of the question.

In the middle of our conversation, you approached us. You had met my friend and her husband at the basketball game. You had asked her if she would take any sports classes, and of course she said no. But today, you were carrying something black in your hand, which you set on the table--a spandex sports cap, designed for swimmers, maybe; possibly for skiing. "I don't know if this will work," you said. "But it's tighter. And maybe--" you shrugged. "Maybe you could take that basketball class after all."

Dear professor, you didn't stay to talk for long. You were already leaving with that shrug of your shoulders, with the carelessness of a kind, yet unpretentious, heart.

But I wish you could have seen her smile. It was beautiful. (And so were you.)

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Monday, February 01, 2010

Meditation on catharsis

Today it is February, and I am crossing the calendar line into this no-man's-month carefully. Call me circumspect or superstitious, but February and I have a long, unpleasant history with one another, and I have a difficult time expecting anything new from it. In my experience, this month of Roman purification has preferred real life tragedy to more artificial means of catharsis: February was the month I was introduced to the brutal particularity of death, to the confusion of illness, and to the incapacitating weight of depression. It's a legacy that makes me suspicious of new beginnings and stages swept clean for a fresh act.

I am cultivating optimism this year, but I am not naive. Things can be very bad; there are some things I cannot change. And though I say that I am "for the bright side, the glass half full, the silver lining,"* I do not mean to suggest that evil is inconsequential. Evil indubitably is. I know this because I now tread more warily about the world, because I am skeptical of February.

Skepticism, however, ought to be of limited scope. I may be only an actor in this drama, but occasionally I get the chance to improvise, and perhaps this year I will take it upon myself to rewrite February.

I am thinking about a dedication along these lines:

"[F]or the delicate and the resilient and the fragile human heart,
may it always heal stronger than it was before."*

*"Silver-Lined Heart," Taylor Mali