Real, Christmas

This is a post I drafted seven years ago but did not publish. It involves something that happened to me during the Christmas season. Reading it now, after finding it by chance, I see that I’ve changed, but I’m still glad to have rediscovered this corner of my mind. I fixed some bad syntax, and corrected a few typos, of which I found more as I went along, which suggests to me that when I originally wrote this I had a few beers at hand. Some things do change.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Two Buddhists meditate on “om” for an hour, go into the parking lot, and rear end each other on the way out. They take it very well.

I had originally thought my next post was going to be about Christmas. You see, I was compelled this year, as many Charlie Browns have been compelled before me, to really make the most out of the Christmas season. I had only vague ideas about what this meant. I figured ice skating would be involved. Eating a candy cane. Being pleased to hear “Feliz Navidad” and then being sick of it and then being pleased again. That sort of thing.

I had told this plan to two or three friends of mine, but I always heard warning bells whenever I said it. There’s that moment in the film Ordinary People where the one troubled teen says to the other troubled teen, let’s have the best Christmas ever! And then she kills herself.

I was having a Heineken with an acquaintance in a lobby one day, as we do, and I mentioned that because of work I wouldn’t be going home until the 24th. I said, “It’s kind of nice, because I’ll be home and–boom, it’s all happening.” She nodded, but noted the obvious: with such a compressed schedule, it’s only too likely that come the 26th I will, once again, feel like I’ve missed it somehow, and give myself a dose of the old Ordinary People, if you know what I mean.

So I thought I would write something about how we want our experiences to be meaningful, and while we all know that sets bars too high sometimes, it is at the same time a valuable pursuit. After all, rituals are important, whether they’re self-invented or societal, and I think it’s no coincidence that, birth of Jesus or no, we chose the darkest part of the year to visit family and light lights.

That’s what I was going to write. Then a woman and I backed up our cars at the same time and changed our lives forever.

I mean that in a mundane way, but it is true.

I don’t know about you, but I have dreams where I stab people to death. Occasionally they are people I know. And every time I kill someone in a dream, I get this panic. Not because I think what I’ve done is wrong, but because it’s irrevocable. There is no going back. I instantly feel nostalgia for the life I had before I stabbed whoever to death.

Yesterday I finished “The Kreutzer Sonata” by Leo Tolstoy, where he describes just such a feeling: a man stabs a family member to death, and immediately begins wishing he hadn’t. He even begins to believe he didn’t do it. To me, this irrevocable quality of certain actions relates to the reason we’re transfixed when we knock over a glass full of something. “I watched it fall! I watched it!”

Consider too: we all remember where we were on September 11th. At times like this, we know, either at the moment or after the fact, that Something Has Happened. Something which cannot be undone. And, for better or for worse, we like the idea that we have lived through Things That Happened. It makes us feel more real.

Real: having independent objective existence (Merriam-Webster)

I’m not saying that we like it when innocent people are murdered. I’m not even saying we like it when we smash our taillights. But in a life that is filled with vast passages of emptiness, of staring into space, of holidays that don’t measure up, the Real cuts like a knife.

The most difficult thing for me to detachedly experience, while the cop wrote up our insurance details in her car, was seeing the other meditators leave the building in waves and register what had happened. They would stare–because we love to know What Happened–and they would murmur arpeggios of interest, but they were also clearly happy to not be Real at this particular moment. Still, recapitulating the details will give them a transitory aura of Realness: “Yeah, hon, the session was good, and then two people got into an accident on the way out. The police came! It’s like a joke: two Buddhists meditate on ‘om’ for an hour…”

There was a kind of shame involved, I’m saying, in this Realness. Perhaps it was the involvement of the police. A year and a half ago, I committed an act which is, and will I believe forever be, one of my worst moments. I was walking with friends to go dancing. We were all boozy. Someone made a joke. I playfully pushed that someone. She fell down and cut a gash on her leg.

And a security guard looked over, as if to say, “Do I need to get involved?”

As if to say, “Can you no longer manage the living of your own life?”

–I’m going to leave this space blank for you to meditate on “om” for an hour here, if you’d like.

Actually, every moment, or at least every moment that involves us interacting with another human, is irrevocable, positive or negative, in ways we may not even understand.

I recently had another Heineken in a lobby with another acquaintance, as we do. This is someone toward whom I have felt embarrassed as of late. I’ve never pushed her and gashed her leg, but I’ve been drunk around her, and that drunkenness has helped amplify my natural boorishness from time to time.

So I dreaded a little our lobby rendezvous. And after all that, after all the many things I felt she might have held against me, she blindsided me:

“Remember when you told me I wasn’t interesting?”

No…?

It was a casual joke I had made once and didn’t think twice about. And yet this is what had stuck. So while I was worried about my own baggage, she was carting around hers. And they weren’t even the same label. [I mean…also I’m an asshole. –DG, 2020 version]

Now imagine Hugh Grant narrating over some slo-mo footage of people at airports. “Real actually is…all around.” A blessing and a burden.

I’ve been reading, very slowly, The Religions of Man by Huston Smith. I got it out of the trash at Sarah Lawrence. Just recently I finished the section on Hinduism. There is a passage, and I can’t find it so you have to trust me, that describes how you should see your persona as distinct from the inner part of you that is god, that is Atman. To practice, the yogis tell us, you should try seeing yourself from a bird’s eye view, and narrating: “There’s Daniel eating another peanut butter sandwich. There’s Daniel backing into another car. There’s Daniel casually saying something that will remain forever as scar tissue on another person’s heart.”

I’ve tried it a bit recently, though I haven’t yet tried it during sex, which I feel might be a healthy occupation. It can’t hurt to make one’s sense of self-worth less tied to the ebb and flow of libidinous success. “Kreutzer Sonata” is also about a man trying to see his wife as something other than his possession, trying to see her as a human in her own right. It’s like being Rosencrantz and trying to realize someone else is Hamlet. Everyone is Hamlet.

Mike Daisey, who has had his own problems dealing with the Real, described once in a monologue why Paris Hilton, and other celebrities, might be closer to Hindu detachment than the rest of us:

“When you’re f—ing Paris Hilton, you’re f—ing her, you’re f—ing her, thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’m f—ing Paris Hilton.’ And that realization takes you out of the moment. You can never fully be in that moment, because you’re thinking about what that moment signifies. And Paris Hilton? What’s Paris Hilton thinking? Paris Hilton is thinking, ‘Oh my god, oh my god: I’m Paris Hilton.'”

You can watch here, and coincidentally this is the moment when a group of people famously (as famous goes for one-man-show standards) walked out of his show en masse. Maybe it was a little too transcendent for them.

This is an age where more and more we can be defined by a single one of our actions. A recent example would be Justine Sacco, whose pre-flight tweet about catching AIDS in Africa found her jobless and globally despised by the time she landed. That’s going to haunt her forever. But maybe those in the public eye are ultimately the lucky ones. Life goes on. “Life finds a way,” as Jeff Goldblum tells us, even when we are embarrassed and ashamed. So celebrities and the infamous might have a headstart to enlightenment: “That’s not me. This scandal is not the real me. Nothing can touch the real me.”

(Yes it’s possible the real Sacco is racist and hateful, but even that can change.)

I never really finished the post. All I had after writing about Justine Sacco–and who remembers her now?–were some loose ends I’d jotted down, either to use or not use. It’s fitting enough not to have a real ending on this post, so I’ll leave the notes in too.

Note 1) a quote from Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

And what if I’m not successful? What if I’m just another person in the middle of the pack? What if there’s only the middle of the pack? Then I have to see everyone differently.

Note 2) What I overheard the lady who collided with me say to an onlooker:

Onlooker: “And you just had the meditation?”

Lady: “That’s why we can…handle it.”

Note 3) Me remembering that my elementary school teacher, instead of putting you in time out, would put you in what he called “the no-fault zone.” I wasn’t sure what it meant then (in 1993) and I’m not sure now (in 2013 and 2020).

Note 4) My musing on the fact that post-accident theater involves a “structured improvisation where you both avoid saying anything that could construe you’re at fault. I really want to say, boy I am sorry this happened right now – just acknowledge that we had killed our Buddha buzz – but I couldn’t. I tried to say it with my eyes, and by politely calling her ‘ma’am.'”

Okay okay I can’t help offering this as a coda. This hadn’t happened yet when I drafted the post, but after I picked up the pieces of my broken Honda Civic, I eventually found a guy who was willing to repair my car over Christmas. It was super expensive, and I had to pay in cash, but as recompense, and over my repeated “oh that’s all right”s, he loaded me and my travel bag into his red sports car and drove me, at high speeds, to LaGuardia. He was a small, old Italian man, hunched over the wheel, and at one point–I think I had to explain signage at a toll booth to him–he said, quite calmly, by way of explanation, “I can’t see so good anymore.” He didn’t seem to think this perilous condition was anything he had to apologize for. Maybe that’s the punchline of the joke I was stuck in. Two Buddhists meditate on “om” for an hour, hit each other on the way out of the parking lot, and realize they have nothing to apologize for. They’d already let it go.

Object

I am having problems with the death penalty. Yes, this is because of Trump, but not in the way you might think.

I kind of thought my feelings were settled here. Partly due to chance and partly I think because of my temperament, capital punishment is an issue I’ve long been captivated by. These feelings came to a head in the fall of 2011, when the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, even though there was serious doubt as to his guilt. I made a solo performance that tried to express my feelings about Mr. Davis’s death, which may have boiled down to this: I cannot even determine if I am a “good” or “bad” person, or if I am better or worse than Troy Davis, and therefore the belief that we as a society can pass ultimate judgment on someone is dubious to me.

There are other, simpler reasons to be against the death penalty. The Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishments. In recent years, concerns have been raised that lethal injection may actually be cruel (meaning brutal), though it may seem painless in theory. Complicating this issue was the fact that some companies refused (on principle) to continue to make the chemicals long used in the three-drug cocktail of choice for executions. States began experimenting with other drugs whose effects on humans were not well known.

More convincing may be the “unusual” side of the eighth amendment. I used to think this meant the punishment had to be odd: using a cat o’nine tails or something. An unusual punishment, however, could also be one that is not is statistically normal. If the majority of people who commit homicide don’t receive the death penalty, but you do, that could be unusual. If certain parts of the country (the South) are overrepresented in the nation’s executions, that could be unusual. Most famously, if you are much more likely to receive the death penalty when your victim is white–which you are–that could be considered unusual.

I believe that anyone who really studies the issue must come to the conclusion that the death penalty as applied in this country is an unusual punishment. I myself go further in believing that no human society is capable of creating a system whereby the death penalty is meted out in a way that is consistent and fair, at least not without ignoring the possibility that you are killing innocent people.

Therefore, I do not lose sleep at night from opposing the death penalty. Except I have to deal with the fact that as a citizen of the United States, and a resident of Georgia, when my country or my state kills, I give my tacit approval. So unless I take measures to publicly revoke my approval, I either lose sleep, or lose sleep from the fact that I’m not losing sleep.

Why am I worried about this, again, now? It’s not (simply) because death is on all of our minds more than is usual. It’s because Donald Trump and Bill Barr have politicized the issue.

From July 2020 to the wee hours of Thursday night, the US government has executed 8 federal inmates after a 17-year hiatus. Keep in mind we are talking about the federal government, not any of the states. The federal government had not executed anyone since 2003. From 1958–2003, only 4 people were executed by the federal government. One of them was Timothy McVeigh. This means that in a matter of months, Barr and Trump have doubled the work of the past fifty years. And there are now five more scheduled before Biden takes office. There were only two more to go, but Barr just added three more yesterday. There had not been a federal execution under a lame-duck president since 1889, under Grover Cleveland.

I want to stress here that this is not due to some freakish uptick in the number of people convicted of federal crimes or sentenced to the death penalty. These are people who had been on death row for years, and who previously were beneficiaries, if you want to see it this way, of a longstanding reticence on the part of the federal government to exercise its killing power.

Why the reticence, especially recently? Maybe because…

When I first read that Barr and Trump were restarting the federal execution apparatus, I was infuriated. This seemed like a blatant election-season power move, a way to seem tough on crime, or tough in general. Imagine being an inmate who is executed not because it’s a deterrent or it’s the right thing to do, but because of political timing. Why else would you start in July of 2020?

So I was all set to drive myself to Terre Haute, Indiana, where the inmates are executed, and join what little socially-distanced protest I could find there. Then I read up on some of the crimes involved.

I will not use any details here, but I will say that the crimes I read about were absolutely disgusting. And my safe little ideological world that I’ve built in my head…got rocked. To Terre Haute I did not travel.

A few days ago I opened a word doc and tried to make sense of my confusion. Here are some things I wrote:

The question cannot be whether some people deserve to die or not.

I do think some people deserve to have their lives taken from them. 

But I do not know how to discern who does and who doesn’t.

If you restrain yourself from judging whether someone deserves to die, you are withholding from yourself a power which the criminal exercised. This is an unappealing position. You are depriving yourself. You may look like a sucker. The world is set up so that some people can easily kill other people. It ought to be hard or it ought to require some special diabolical evil but it isn’t and doesn’t.

There is an unfairness to the world that human justice can never put right. We will never put it right. But how close can we get?

I’ve been reading Samantha Power’s The Education of an Idealist, which is about her transformation from a crusading journalist to an actual policy-maker and diplomat, including her time as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Her discussion of the violence and war in Syria made me jot in the margin: Assad = evil?

I have difficulty with the concept of evil. Like a good liberal, I believe to an extent that thinking people are evil is sometimes a way of partly letting ourselves off the hook (since we support and are supported by a system wherein some people can be driven to crime). Even when I think about what would let a man like Assad use deadly nerve gas on sleeping children, I cannot think much in terms of evil, which is a concept I just don’t know what to do with. It’s a conversation-ender, isn’t it? Because what can we do against evil?

So I ended up thinking today about objectification.

I think it’s disturbingly simple to begin seeing your fellow human beings as objects. Just a taste of this can be enough for intimate violence of the kind that put these federal inmates behind bars. Do it long enough and well enough and the object status of other people can plasticize inside you and allow you to carry out anonymous mass bloodshed. I actually think we’re headed down a road in this country where more of us will start objectifying more of us more and more (and that’s a lot of mores). I think we will see more violence against Americans for their beliefs or opinions than we’ve had since the Civil War.

Therefore I’ve made up my mind, again. I’m going to look into protests in Terre Haute. And I’m going to re-dedicate myself to being part of the solution instead of the problem–not simply in the place in my mind where I stand for things, but in my life’s work. And the reasons I will use for this are twofold:

1. I object, and

2. I will not contribute to seeing more people as objects, no matter how guilty they themselves may be of doing so.

Political football

In an era of outrage fatigue, I find I have deep reserves of anger for people who are shaming anyone who protests, including NFL players refusing to stand for the national anthem.

To play “political football,” according to William Safire, is “to thrust a social, national security, or otherwise ostensibly non-political matter into partisan politics.” The idea has been around at least since the 19th century; an 1889 cartoon from Judge magazine shows poor President Benjamin Harrison on the ground, asking, “What can I do when both parties insist on kicking?”

harrison_football_political_cartoon

Now football is political. Oh, for the simpler days, like, say, 1969. From a NYTimes article on Nixon:

When a Moratorium March against the war was announced for Washington in November 1969, the president announced that he would not “be affected whatever by it.” Instead, the White House said, he would be home watching televised football, enjoying the patriotic pageants staged during halftime.

Similarly, a friend of mine during the last election specialized in what I call hit and run attacks: she would make some attack on Hillary Clinton, and when I, often after having researched, responded with counterclaims (and usually more than one point against her opponent), my friend would say, “Oh well I just can’t think about it anymore.” Or, in one memorable case, after I went to lengths to debunk her latest Clinton conspiracy, she simply texted back, “I’m watching football.”

How infuriated Nixon would be now, and how bewildered my friend is (I know because she’s told me) to see that even old fashioned American escapism is tainted by citizens expressing themselves.

God forbid that Black men (two-thirds of NFL players) who are paid to engage in controlled violence with each other who in many cases destroy their brains and bodies should ever draw attention to actual violence happening to Black bodies and Black futures across the country.

But what if they didn’t vote, you say? It’s a common water cooler truism to announce that not voting forfeits your right to complain. It’s also complete bullshit. Actually that right is protected by the veterans the protest-shamers like to speak for. (For all the hoopla about mentioning race or sex, no one seems to mind playing the Veteran Card.) If you take away freedom of expression from what soldiers fight for, you reduce their sacrifice to protecting our asses and our oil interests.

An article two days ago about this issue by Roy Peter Clark has some zingers in it. Among them, this:

Everyone who removes a cap and stands in the sun to sing the anthem is making a political statement protected by the First Amendment. Every player who kneels to pray with his friends and foes after a game is making a political statement protected by the First Amendment.

From the Donald’s post-election lies spread about the NYTimes to this week’s Hamilton boycott, there is every indication so far that we are going to enter another Nixonland: the ones who claim to be tough often can’t seem to stand any challenges. The only question remaining is whether dissent will be merely discouraged or actively punished.

Why not use George W. Bush in response: “My answer is, bring ’em on.”

“I think”

I blame middle school teachers. They got us into this mess of a 2016 with its partisan rancor and its echo chambers and its casual hate.

What I mean is I remember very clearly my 7th grade teacher, Ms. K., telling us all not to use “I think” in our essays. I’m sure you were told the same, if your teacher was worth her salt. “I’m reading your essay, so I know these are your thoughts,” she told us. A website I just Googled on this subject puts it clearly:

Avoid “I” statements that weaken your argument. Phrases like “I believe,” “I think,” “The way I see it,” “It seems to me,” and so on, all imply that the statement that follows is only your opinion as opposed to being an argued position or a statement of fact. For example, the following statement is weak:

I believe that preservation enables us to retain our cultural identity.

If you simply leave off the “I” part, the statement is much stronger:

Preservation enables us to retain our cultural identity.

I have to say, looking at this I find “I believe that preservation enables us to retain our cultural identity” a charming formulation and statement. But that’s because I’m no longer the me-centered Manchurian candidate Ms. K. wanted me to be. Let me explain:

The other day I watched some of the Pence/Trump 60 Minutes interview. I put Pence’s name first as wishful thinking; of course he was little more than an extra.

60min-trump-pence-clinton-iraq-071716

Now, I do admit at times to being in awe of Trump. “I’m much more humble than you would understand” is a staggering feat of irony, and the man did it off the top of his head! I mean hair. Almost equal, in recent examples, is his use of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as personal theme. His is the first truly Seinfeld candidacy.

Of course I was also struck by fear that this man could be president. But more than that, I was surprised to find…is that…yes…it’s pity. I felt like I shouldn’t even be watching this, like it was some private home video of an insane person come to light after a parole hearing.

So, naturally I tried to sculpt this thought into a Facebook status. Because otherwise how would I know I had it? (“I status, therefore I think.”)

Here’s what I came up with:

I don’t just want Trump to lose, I want him to get the mental help he needs.

I meant it sincerely. Watching him I thought, can you imagine what it would be like to live as this person? It must be horrible. He’s keeping himself together with putty and invisible tape, two Tweets away from manically scraping his face off like the man in Poltergeist.

But I hesitated. Should I write “the mental help I think he needs”? I’m not a mental help expert, after all.

I don’t like meanness. I don’t know how long I’ve felt this way. Certainly in high school I was quite mean. I thought it meant I was fabulously acidic like Dorothy Parker. It didn’t. I’ve been mean since then; no doubt some of you reading this could tell me how and where and when. Lately I just don’t have the stomach for it. Even as a witness. I know, I know: I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear my trousers rolled, but I just keep seeing Rodney King say, “Can’t we all just get along?” But I hear him with my mother’s voice.

I’m not saying this to apply for sainthood. Truthfully, I wish I were tougher. In-person interactions are slightly different, but internet fights lack closure. You never know when someone might spring another snark on you. Throughout the Democratic primary, I was actually afraid to post my support for Hillary Clinton, because I didn’t want to attract acrimony. I just kept it inside, like one of Nixon’s silent majority.

So the #LoveforLeslieJ thing got to me. Leslie Jones, fabulous comedienne, makes me laugh every time she opens her mouth. And she got chased off of Twitter by racist and vile hate speech.

That’s an extreme example, but the election has highlighted one of the reasons I’d really like to unplug from the web. No one can do anything without it getting shit on by somebody. Yes, this was always true, but the internet has allowed shitters to find each other and shit loudly and proudly and turn their shit into clickbait which then convinces people who just a moment before were perfectly intestinally-balanced that now they too have to shit.

Not all shitting is bad, of course. Some things need a lot of it. But here’s one example. Talented guy Mark Duplass gave a talk at a film festival where he said that aspiring filmmakers have “no excuse” to not make movies on the weekends with their friends. The technology is inexpensive now; go do it. Make something.

That’s a pretty harmless statement, but when a friend reposted it a while ago, someone I don’t know wrote an impassioned attack, saying it was tone deaf to the working class, who don’t have the privilege of weekends or time to think up ideas and stuff like that.

I thought, really? He was speaking at a film festival. He was considering his audience. No one was there in sleeping bags with a cart full of plastic bottles.

Let me briefly make a Pollyanna point: It’s easy to be against. It’s easy to attack and knock down. It’s harder to bring things into the world, whether they are big budget Ghostbuster movies or simple thoughts. I think, but I could be making it up, that Anne Sexton used to post a quotation above her typewriter about not letting the silence win. All I could find was this bit of her poetry which I am going to take out of context and suit to my needs: comparing silence to a white bird, she says it comes each day to “peck at the black eyes and the vibrating red muscle of my mouth.”

It makes me think, as I’m sure it did her, of the bit in Cinderella where the birds comes and peck out the eyes of the ugly stepsisters, which got left out of Disneyworld.

On the other hand, while poking around “silence quotation” searches, I came across different versions of the proverbial “speak only if it improves upon silence.”

Of course, we tend to have different criteria for what improves upon silence. The three gates is a more defined system: is it true? is it kind? is it necessary?

Yesterday, I tried out a version of this post on someone. Her reaction was lukewarm. As I then held my own draft up to the light, I could see a thinness here, a discoloration there. I began to doubt how much I really believed. So, I thought, this will be another for the scrap pile. These entries get fewer and farther between as I lose, for better or worse?, the assurance of different convictions that I had some years ago. The older I get, the more I just want to write “I think” and leave the rest off. “I think” is the statement. Or, more accurately, “I am thinking.”

I’d welcome that development on my Facebook newsfeed. People could post the same articles, but would be limited to that one caption, so at least I could believe that we all still had gears turning and weren’t completely stuck in our ways, using blogs and pundits to find different ways to proudly advertise our suspended animation.

Because that was going to be my original point, my rhetorical coup, to suggest that we need to lavish a little more attention on “I think” these days. We ought to reintroduce it into our writing, our texting, our talking, our statusing. Because I think we have lost touch with the idea that, as our grammarians chided, much of the time what we’re stating is, in fact, “only” our opinion.

This would not be a panacea. Note: the full Trump quotation is actually “I think I’m much more humble than you would understand” (emphasis mine). But it’s my proposal for a first step toward increasing civility in our discourse.

Yet the temptation is to write things as brashly and splashily as possible; the trend is for pith, not pity. I’m part of it. I get hung up more than the average bear on how many likes or views or comments something I write gets, when I know I ought to be writing for…silence, really.

I had an idea the other day to make a joke about an unsocial network, where you write things but are guaranteed that no one will ever read them, but then I realized I was just describing a journal.

So if it’s going to be public, at least I ought to be able to write in a way that I would accept a reaction of silence with perfect equanimity. I should take the pleasure in the work, not the fruits of the work. The act of figuring out the idea through writing it. Learning by writing: a buzz phrase in education I’m just picking up on, but practice.

Two things ultimately saved this meager essay from the cutting room floor.

1) There has been much talk in my family lately of children. My sister is pregnant, which is part of it, and my father is frequently offering me a rationale for keeping the human race going, is another. He is well aware of the counterarguments, and often quotes Dylan in “Masters of War”:

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world

Every time I see someone’s well-intended work or wish smeared or tarred because it didn’t cover all the human bases at the same time, I say a quick prayer of thanks that nothing I’ve done has ever attracted much attention. Someone would find it sexist. Someone would find it racist. Someone would find it allergenic. Someone would find it just bad. And maybe they would all have their points.

But I don’t want to feel the fear to bring writing into the world.

2) Using etymonline.com, I tried to trace the origin of the word “think.” It was not as simple as I’d hoped, but it turns out the word has the same root as “thank.” And in a rare moment of etymological poetry, the “thank” entry states thus: “related phonetically to think as song is to sing.”

Thank is to think as song is to sing. These things that we think, then, are thanks. Or they could be, or ought to be, or deserve our effort to try to be.

That’s just too good not to break the silence to share.

I thank you. I think you.

Vulnerable

“Poetry leaves one vulnerable.”

–Ms. Hamilton, my 8th grade Language Arts teacher, to me

This remark (she wrote it on a poem of mine) came to me out of the blue while teaching yesterday. It was the kind of Madeleine-biting recollection you almost have to sit down from. I hadn’t thought of that whole thing for a while, but I told almost all of it to my AP Literature students, who were typically moaning over an assignment I’d given them:

“When I was in eighth grade I was madly infatuated with this girl named Stacy.”

“Did she know?”

“Oh I’m sure she did.”

“Did it ever happen?”

“She was out of my league. Or at least my crippled self-esteem decided she was, which is more or less the same thing. The point is, I wrote a poem about her, called, oh God, it was called, ‘She.’ How awful. And it was all about this ‘she’ figure who bewitched me in these different ways, or made life worth living, whatever. And then I, and I can’t remember if the teacher asked me to or I volunteered–”

Memories lost to the past forever. This is going to a motif today, children.

“–but I read it aloud to the whole class. Which she was in.”

“Did the class know?”

“I think the class next door knew, I was vibrating at such a high hormonal frequency. Dogs were probably whining across the street. And anyway, my teacher wrote on my paper the next day that she was proud of me, or something, and she added, ‘Poetry leaves one vulnerable.'”

I was saying this to encourage my students, whom I was asking to be a mite exposed themselves. It was day one of our whirlwind poetry exploration, and here’s my assignment; you can have it:

  1. Show obligatory clip of Dead Poets Society. What will your verse be?
  2. Ask students to make a private list of five times when they felt a strong feeling. “The time when ______.” Emphasize that this is completely private, even you won’t read it, but that they will be using it later (so they actually have to do it).
  3. Encourage students with examples, including both common when we feel strong emotions (deaths, births) and quotidian ones: “The time last Saturday when I lay down in bed and felt the clean sheets and thought, ‘I don’t have to wake up to an alarm tomorrow.'”
  4. Tell students to choose one of these times, and write a verse of poetry that conveys that feeling, without revealing any of the actual details which inspired the feeling.
  5. Resist urge to explain what you mean too much, or give too many examples.
  6. Possible example when they pressure you into it: “The fledgling robin beaked his way to the edge of the nest, looking down at the seeming abyss below. Suddenly, impossibly, he pushed himself off, and started to fly.” Explain that this is what it felt like to leave for NYU. And is also a pretty lame example.
  7. Know in back of your mind that this may help students see how, as an English teacher colleague of mine once put it, “It’s nice to know what zeugma and chiasmus are, but really it all comes down to metaphor.”
  8. Wonder if you will find anyone weird enough to just write a list of adjectives.
  9. Make each student stand and read her verse. No explanations.

The point of this (which, in classic DG fashion, I only remembered to tell one of my classes) is to activate in them the idea that they do, in fact, have strong feelings, perhaps more often than they realize. This is a variation of an exercise I made up last semester when I was trying to workshop Chekhov with Intro to Acting students (fail). I felt that you won’t be successful with this stuff, or won’t get anything out of it, if you’re not in touch with yourself as a feeling, bleeding, snotting human being.

I don’t like poetry. But I like it more every day. I mean as I get so OLLLLLLLLD. And as I approached how to teach poetry for the first time in eight years, I thought about the distance between me and my students, and how it was even greater than last time. I’ve had so many more feelings than them, I thought. Mostly I was thinking of despair and massive quantities of self-loathing, but I’m sure there are others.

So I did this with them. And, (it’s one of the great mysteries), when you tell students to do something, they usually do it!

It was really lovely–and I don’t often wax emotional about classroom moments–to see these kids stand up and read their little invisibility cloaked hearts out. Some of them felt what Ms. Hamilton meant when she wrote to me. It’s a brave thing to admit that you have a feeling. I was going to say “especially as a teenager” but I hesitate. What feelings do we admit to on a daily basis other than our typical rage and frustration and boredom? Oh and love too, love, yes, but not the kind of thing I felt when I wrote “She,” God help me. That can’t be sustained, and it’s a good thing too. Life can’t be lived at that frequency.

“Exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that at the Devon School was the next thing to suicide.”

–John Knowles, A Separate Peace

But I was driving home tonight and another sense of vulnerability came over me. I briefly entertained the idea of digging up my copy of “She” and reading it to the class, tit for tat. Problem is, there’s no way I still have any copy of it. And I keep a lot of shit, especially of the emotional variety. But that one’s gone.

And a lot is gone. And while I kid myself by thinking that writing offers me some kind of permanence…while I actually at times sacrifice the interpersonal for the sake of my writing, and even on occasion have made wounds for and through my writing (and vulnerable after all comes from a root meaning “wound”), do I imagine someone some day is going to dig through my hoary hard drives? Or scroll forever through my archived Facebook profile to see every pithy thing I said?

I’m not being self-pitying; I’m aware that some people read the stuff I write, and some people may continue to after I die, but zoom out far enough and it all fades away. And so I thought, poetry leaves one vulnerable, because in putting something down on paper we are remembering that we die.

Only that didn’t feel quite right.

Because the other part of what I was feeling was that the feeling itself had died. I know I liked Stacy, but even if I had the exact words in front of me, I wouldn’t feel them again.

“I think you’re courageous…to dare go visit…what I mean is, to face the fact, that we have lost those feelings forever.”

–Clarissa Vaughan, The Hours, David Hare’s screenplay

I happened to have just reread Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry-Picking,” in preparation for teaching it tomorrow. In it, and you should read it (again), the speaker makes a shift near the end (always look for the shift, scholars) and contrasts the way he felt as a boy with the way he feels now. And so you have a double departure, as the poem itself is about a lost feeling, and the feeling that inspired the poem is lost; it’s in the past. And poor Seamus is dead and gone too.

I know Ms. Hamilton didn’t mean all this morbid stuff when she wrote that to me.

“How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

–Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

Years passed. Stacy and I made an effort to stay in touch with each other, even as she started a family. It was sometimes awkward, and occasionally easy. The last time I saw her, I believe, was for a gin and tonic or two at a trendy suburban place. She had her husband and kids, and I had to rush off to shepherd my production of The Vagina Monologues, which we no doubt laughed at as perfectly capturing something about the differences between us and our two trajectories. And we were joking about perhaps never seeing each other again. She said to one of her kids, “We don’t know, this could be the last time you see Mr. Daniel.” And, turns out, it was.

Because you can beat a dead horse, but.

I try not to see the creepiness in the zombified relationships I sometimes carry out online, pretending to still be in someone’s life when the opposite is true. It can be weird, yes, but when radio silence finally comes, when it’s clear that you will never, ever again, I’m not sure it brings any better peace. It more likely just leaves one feeling, well…

wounded.

 

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears…in…rain.

–Roy Batty, Blade Runner

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