I like teaching, even after nearly thirty years. I love teaching. But I’m always happy when the end of the spring term rolls around and the students and I can take a break from each other. I’m giving an exam in my Understanding Vietnam course tomorrow, then I’ll have several days of heavy grading, then the wide open spaces. It looks like I won’t be returning to Vietnam until winter, so I have no serious travel plans this summer. I’m hoping to finish a book of poems I’ve been puttering around with for way too long and to revise a couple of short stories I wrote last year and get them out for editors to look at. And there are some areas of our yard that need restoration, so I’ll have the shovel in my hands quite a bit as soon at the weather improves a bit — after several nice days, we woke to snow this morning. Snow. Yesterday, black flies, today snow.
I don’t think I’ve gone this long without posting something since I started blogging almost nine years ago. It’s been a busy semester — I’ve been serving on a search committee and a planning committee, both of which have had to navigate certain controversial issues. And I’m teaching a survey course — American Lit I — I’ve never taught before and that has meant reading some texts I haven’t looked at seriously in a couple of decades. I’ve also been trying to arrange translation and editing work with a couple of Vietnamese colleagues and do some writing of my own as well. Fact is, I haven’t been working on poems with any serious application for several months. But I’ve also been suffering from fairly severe anxiety for several months, for which I’m now taking medication. It started after I cam back from Vietnam last spring, around the time of my birthday. Beyond noting the fact here, this is not something I’m going to write much about here in a public space, but it’s not something I want to hide either. (I am fortunate to be in a position in which making such an admission will have little or no effect on my ability to make a living, friendships, etc. Not everyone is so lucky.) Such an experience — especially coming out the other side of it and regaining some equanimity — leads one to some fairly intense considerations and reconsiderations of one’s personal history, one’s “self,” if you will. Especially at my age, when I have a fairly long vista to contemplate in the direction of the past and a somewhat shorter vista looking ahead. Or is it all chemicals binding and unbinding to receptors in the brain? More than that, clearly, though I’m not sorry about introducing the chemicals to my brain cells — they seem to be getting along quite well in recent days.
I’ve been doing a couple of things to work out for myself the nature of my recent experience (which is actually a recurrence of a very similar episode a decade ago, also after returning from Vietnam, though I think that is mostly a coincidence, except perhaps for the influence of spending a lot of time by myself in a strange, though loved, place.) I’ve begun gathering thoughts and materials for a course that I want to teach with a medical historian colleague called The Literature of Madness. I’m also in the early stages of drafting an essay with the working title, “The Wilderness of American Mind,” which will be an attempt, along with the class, to investigate the literary implications of certain abnormal states of mind, not limited to, but including my own. I am particularly interested, for the purely personal reasons noted above, in anxiety and the ratcheting and ricocheting state of mind it produces.
I have been circling Buddhism for at least a decade, probably longer, but I was so burned by Christianity as a kid that I have distrusted all forms of religion that I remained suspicious of even a non-theistic religion like Buddhism — of which there are, also, some heavily theistic forms. I survived my early adulthood by becoming a non-believer, though I’ve always had a strange attraction to ritual; mostly, I discovered that I got a lot more comfort and happiness from sentences than from beliefs, though, so I went to work as a writer. And then over the last decade I came to believe less and less in that, or in the kind of writer I had become. There seemed to be no need for such a thing as I was. That has been driving me crazy, figuratively and perhaps literally. But for the last six months or so I have been sitting zazen, reading sutras, trying find a way forward. It seems to be working.
I’m teaching a five-week Saturday morning class for local high school students on “creativity and imagination.” I’ve got a great group of thirteen teenagers who have self-selected or been encouraged by a guidance counselor to take this class in “creativity and imagination” and they seem engaged and happy to take part, though many are shy and all have been trained by their high schools to be obedient. Yesterday we were talking about ways to put pressure on language in order to see what happens; then we wrote six word short stories and haiku. While the students were working I wrote the following poem(s). I don’t think it’s great work, but it captures a certain insight and it does have the spirit of haiku, I think.
Two Hakiu in a Classroom
Gray metal tables
Arranged end to end in rows
The students also
A square of sunlight
Paints one row illuminating
One student’s face
Vietnam seems very far away at the moment. It’s below zero here and I’ve been running for ten days to catch up from . . . being in Vietnam. In a few days’ time I’ve gone from the leisurely life of a poet in a tropical clime to being a professor of literature living beside a frozen river and teaching, in addition to a class about Vietnam, an American Literature course. The distance, both physical and psychic, is considerable. Perhaps surprisingly, I have felt on top of things in the classroom despite my preparation being a little on the thin side — my students have filled in any gaps I’ve left, bless them. Also, I came home from Vietnam filled with enthusiasm for various projects that I’ll get too as soon as things settle down a bit over on the teaching side of life.
I’m teaching the first half of the American Lit survey, which in twenty years at Clarkson I’ve never done before, and while I can’t work up much enthusiasm for the likes of John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards, we’re quickly moving on to Emerson next week and I’m rereading some of the central essays with real pleasure and greater understanding than previously.(I’ve found Emerson something of a pious pill in the past, I confess.) Emerson sometimes seems tantalizingly like an American Buddhist, but then he starts talking about superior and inferior intellects in a way that seems contrary to the spirit of enlightenment,i.e., that while there may be quick and slow people that all are capable of enlightenment; the slow require “indirect” teaching (rituals and chanting, etc.) while the quick can grasp the truth sometimes from a single sentence or the way light glances off a bowl. Emerson, on the other hand, seems to condemn “the mob” to live their unenlightened lives as best they can — and women as well, though he never comes right out and says this, perhaps because he had lively daughters. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the audience for “Self-Reliance” consists of young men of a certain class.* In getting ready to teach thias essay, I find myself wavering between asking students to defend themselves against Emerson’s charges of conformity and questioning Emerson’s assumptions about the “nature” of the individual. Of course, I’ll do both.
There is an provocative complication to this observation in “Self-Reliance.” When Emerson compares the “Vermont or New Hampshire” country boy to the effete city boy he seems to be making room for a broader distribution of “genius,” but this strikes me as more of a rhetorical flourish than a heartfelt sentiment; that is, Emerson seems to be using the figure of the farmboy to beat up the city boy a little bit.
When I get back to campus on the 12th of January classes will have already begun. I have arranged for a colleague to show a film to my Understanding Vietnam class and pass out the syllabus. In working out that syllabus I followed chronology and convention in dividing up Vietnamese history, but also in the back of my mind were a number of “frames” through which to view the conventional and chronological (which are themselves frames, of course); there is the frame of my personal involvement, my narrative, but while that animates much of my passion about the subject, it only really has content for me. As I swing my camera around on the streets of Hanoi, I am framing my own experience and am all to aware of the conventional categories into which that experience so easily falls.
The film, Thirteen Days, that I’m having my colleague show on the first two days of class, though, illustrates what I mean. It’s about the Cuban Missile Crisis and only mentions Vietnam twice, in passing, once at the beginning and again at the end. But the portrayal of the politics of the Cold War provides a way for me to frame certain preconceptions Americans have about Vietnam and about “Communism.” I want to lay those preconceptions before my students right from the start, as well as get them used to the idea of shifting frames. For instance, we’ll also look at Vietnamese history as a series of conflicts internal to Vietnam; and we’ll use literature to frame certain pervasive cultural attitudes. And so on. The frames are important in themselves, but perhaps even more important is for my students to become proficient at shifting between frames and superimposing frames as necessary when trying to think critically about the “objective” and conventional stuff from the textbooks.