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