When I teach I can’t seem to motivate myself to do it without having some ulterior motive. I have to be interested in the material, be personally invested in the learning experience. Which really means that I can’t teach unless I’m learning with my students. And as what I’m thinking about from moment to moment is always changing, what I’m wanting to learn about is always changing as well. It’s a precarious, and frequently inconvenient line to walk. There are variables. Moods. Life-shifts. Money problems. Hatreds. Elations. In other words: unexpected things are always happening. When I make lesson plans, I tend to revise them on the fly. I might walk into the classroom, take a look around at the students’ faces, and change everything. It could be a look that does it. A despondency. A bleariness about the eyes. Or just a revulsion at slathering a whiteboard over with words that I could give a fuck less about. That kind of sudden, impossible to ignore loathing. So I adapt. I improvise and make things up and do exactly what I feel like doing.
Be sure to check out our weekly craft responses, critical reviews, artistic process writings, and general musings.
This week we’ve had:
- Masterful Imagery: Charles D’Ambrosio’s The Dead Fish Museum
- Psychology and the Building of Characters, Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
- A Mythic Love Magnified by the Sustaining Food of Laura Esquirel’s Like Water for Chocolate
All of which are stellar. You could take my word for it. But why do that?
Originally, this sort of thing terrified me. But I’ve learned to embrace it. Because otherwise, I’m just another robotic asshole jabbering monotonously about dead garbage. The material has to be alive. I can’t not care. I don’t know how to do that. There’s something inside me that won’t let me do it. I’ve quit so many jobs—some of them well paying, some necessary to my being able to feed myself—due to not being able to give a shit. I can’t negotiate that kind of psychic weather.
It’s like Kafka talking about giving a reading and feeling devastated because every last word wasn’t perfect, that he had a momentary lapse of focus and thereby failed to give the proper respect to annunciating the syllables. It’s the absolute fundamental necessity of giving yourself totally and completely to the piece, breathing life into the words, treating them like scripture, like a revelation.
For me, of course, it’s (teaching is) rarely like that. But there’s that now-and-then occasion when something happens. I close in on this or that, and suddenly it’s like I’ve struck a tuning fork—the air attenuates, the atmosphere goes electric. I glance around the room and the faces have that awestruck deference, that almost pleading hopefulness. As if we were all hovering on the verge of finally, finally grasping some primordial truth. The kind of thing that would save us, that would tell us something about what it means to be here. About how to be here. About how to know and live and maybe even get happy.
When it’s like that it’s magical. And then the time passes. And everyone leaves. And I’m left standing at the front of an empty room either exhausted, or full of terrifying hopefulness, or hovering inside a silence so thick I don’t want to move, just breathe it in, stand inside it like a warm cloud. Then I wonder: What good has it done them? Does anyone every really learn anything? Have I learned anything?
And truthfully, I can never tell.
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I bring all this up because last Friday, when the majority of my students (a composition course) showed up minus the material I’d based an hour and a half of my lesson plan on, irascible man I am, I got selfish and improvised a discussion on love. We read an essay by Jessica Hendry Nelson, “Rapture of the Deep.” It was an incredible piece. She talked about loving deeply, violently, universally. Love like hers was dangerous. Wild, insatiable, and, like desire, for the sake of itself alone.
Here’s some excerpts I liked:
“I hit walls, turned, and shuffled off in the opposite direction until another wall intercepted my path. I was suddenly and irrevocably wracked with love.”
I watched him love so badly he stuck his tongue down the neck of an empty vodka bottle; licked her clean and dry. This brand of love, history proves, is a swift and irreversible undoing.
“I’m afraid I will have a child simply to do it, because my body is capable of making a person and I can’t fathom a lifetime of not experiencing an available experience. I am not paralyzed by choice; I will break this body in its pursuit.”
When we finished the reading, we had a discussion. We talked about a lot of things I don’t remember as, really, I just wanted to tell them a story.
A couple weekends ago I was sitting at a bar with the woman I am determined to marry. She’s a photographer. We were celebrating the anniversary of her going freelance and drinking shots of whisky. I’d been in the bar a dozen times before and kept gazing around at things and thinking how different it all looked. Because she was there. And she was sitting so close to me. Her calf was draped over my thigh. Her hands clasped around the back of my neck.
‘You’re not a modest person,’ she whispered, brushing her lips across mine.
‘No,’ I said, staring into her eyes, slipping my fingers beneath the hem of her dress, tracing the soft curvature of her thighs, ‘I’m not.’
She studied my face. Her head was cocked to the side. Her eyes dim and burning. ‘That’s good,’ she said, shaking her head, smirking, ‘Neither am I.’
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At some point she went outside to have a cigarette. We were downtown and it was Saturday and the street was all blocked off and there was a blues band playing. There were cobblestones, crape myrtles, vendors, Christmas lights in the trees. We’d ordered shots of Jameson and left them sitting on the bar. But I didn’t want to miss the way her fingers lifted the cigarette to her mouth. I didn’t want to miss the way she inhaled, exhaled.
‘It’s a dirty habit,’ she said, brows pursed.
I nodded. Kissed her neck. Whispered into her ear: ‘And?’
On the big stage, a sequin-dressed singer was wailing like Aretha Franklin. Something about love. About loving. And we were dancing in the street. And on the sidewalk. Madly. Wildly. Recklessly.
When it was over, a big black man in his forties came up to us. He was grinning, beaming. He wanted to shake our hands. To hug us.
‘You’re beautiful,’ he said. ‘Hold on to this. My wife and I have been married for twenty years. It’s fucking hard to hold on to.’
Then a kid—maybe twenty-one, twenty-two—had hold of my hand. He was telling me something about how we looked, how he’d been watching us, how he wanted to buy us beers. His hopefulness, that blind sincerity threw me off. I didn’t know how to react. We had shots waiting on the bar a few steps away. We told him thanks. Went inside. Sipped the whisky. And gazed at one another knowing exactly what it all meant.
Until next time,
PS: If you made it this far, thanks. It means a lot.
PS 2: It seems I lied about the content here. This had nothing to do with independence, or fuck gods, or Henry Miller, or anything else I’d said it would have to do with. But oh well. Maybe I’ll try for that next time. I hope you understand.
PS 3: I’d love to hear from you. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org