Friday, May 30, 2008

Friday Poetry: W.H. Auden

Yesterday I was reading a book one of the analyses in which was based around this poem. I didn't end up liking the book very much, but I must say that I do like thinking about the poem.

W.H. Auden
Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Do Gooder Better

Off a lot of conversations and thoughts recently (the conversations mostly with Tyromaven, the thoughts pretty much everywhere), I want it known and understood that I am not now, nor will never be again, a do-gooder.

This is not to deny that I have been. I have. When I was first teaching theater, in college, I don't think I knew what else to be. I was deeply beholden to students' every expressed whim and desire; I let feeling sorry for people, rather than feeling for/with people, guide my actions. I needed to do that, and I learned from it, and I'm doing all I can never to do it again.

A couple of years ago I posted on the concept of alfalsism, which drew rankled reactions from several of my readers. I understand why people got so prickly; while I still stand by the basic opinions, especially as I clarified them in the comments, it was an incredibly negative and hostile post, and manner of approaching it.

So here I am.

The definition of a do-gooder, as I see it, is someone who approaches work completely from the outside, and dispenses Band-Aids on the battlefield. This, again, is not to deny that Band-Aids are sometimes necessary. But in terms of social services, which in one way or another are almost all the organizations I've worked for in the last four years, do-gooders are almost omnipresent and not terrifically useful. A do-gooder is a person who sees terrible problems in the world that result in some sadness, and feels that the most important work to be done is addressing the sadness.

Again, this is not to say that the sadness does not need to be addressed. However, without addressing the source of the sadness people are just going to keep being sad. (I am simplifying by using the term "sadness," but I'm hoping you understand what I mean.) But a do-gooder pats herself on the back for her minimal work on mildly alleviating sadness, believing her work is genuinely changing the world of those she is ostensibly serving. A do-gooder can't view the changes she's making in scale, nor can she really take in that the problems she sees could possibly be systemic.

What are the alternatives to being a do-gooder? For a while, with Tyromaven, I was poking at "world-changer," but honestly I'm more and more convinced that teacher, in and of itself, is an alternative. To teach without assuming you know its results, without believing your contribution complete but still acknowledging its substance, to know where it fits into a larger picture—this is an alternative to do-gooding. World-changer is an ambition, and I'm willing to hold it as such, but for now I'm going to go with teacher.

I don't have the energy to write much more than this, but I hope it's clear enough.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Friday Poetry: Stanley Kunitz

Yes, I have skipped a couple of Fridays. For at least the remaining five that I live in Chicago, I promise devotion.

Stanley Kunitz
Touch Me

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it's done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Most Personal Post I Have Ever Written on This Entire Blog

I've been absent for a while, because the last week and a half have been among the most emotionally intense of my entire life. This post isn't so personal that I'm going to tell you all about that, but I am going to spend a bit of time on one aspect of it.

As some of you know and some of you don't, at the end of June I am planning to leave Chicago, where I have lived for the last eight years, and move to I honestly have no idea where. I want to spend the summer travelling within the United States, the subsequent year living and working outside of the United States, and the year after that begin grad school, also probably in the United States, though I'm not positive about that one. In April of 2007, I picked June of 2008 as my departure date, knowing that I had to fix one or I'd never leave, without a realistic notion of the fact that June of 2008 would, in fact, someday arrive. Now that it's just around the corner, I'm faced with the realities of both the preparations I have managed to make and the ones I haven't.

One of the ones I have managed to make is that I gave notice at my job, and the next two days are, in fact, my last two days of work—my last two days as an employed person living in the city of Chicago. The program in which I teach is broken down into seven-week sessions with one interstitial week, during which new students take their pre-tests and participate in a Life Skills course. This my last week is that week. Today I was asked to help two new low- to no-literacy students with their math tests.

As I spoke to these women, I was overcome with the desire to stay at my job.

I fucking *ached* to be their teacher. Because I know I could. I had a deep, clear sense of who and how each of them would be in my Level 1 Reading and Writing class, how they would fit in and interact with the returning students I already know, what I could teach them, how I could teach them, how bloody fascinating their stories must be (it's hard to imagine reaching the age of seventy without having *ever* attended school—what is behind that?) and what those stories, both of these women being senior citizens, would mean in a group that contains a lot of young recovering addicts and extremely young mothers. This afternoon there was nothing in the world I wanted more than to have that class, the class that will be this coming session, the first session at my workplace in more than a year that I will not be present for.

I have made the decision to leave, both my workplace and Chicago, and I am fairly confident that I even know why I made it and still believe it to be the right thing for me. Even if I weren't leaving Chicago, I'd have to make some changes in how I approached this job; I teach part-time and my emotional commitment is full-time, and working in a community where last Tuesday alone I learned that one of my former students had been killed in a drive-by and another sexually assaulted at work, that is no mean emotional commitment. Adult students are, in my general experience of part-time teaching, a lot more draining than child students, because with adults you really have to dig for the hope, both theirs and your own. And you have to love people or teaching doesn't work, and even if you are, as I consider myself to be, an overall loving person, loving is really fucking hard work too.

But in the last year especially I have gotten to become a teacher, become comfortable saying that was who I am, and today, suddenly, that was *all* I was, and I liked it. I wanted to stay forever talking to my co-worker about the probable social dynamics of the new Level 1 classes. I wanted to be around next week when the results of LT's GED exam come in, and I want to help RD study for hers, be around to break down algebra problems and see her cheer for herself when she remembers how pi works. I wanted to be the person with whom the women I was talking to learned to multiply and read poetry and wrote full sentences for the first time. I wanted that more than I wanted to spend time out of this country, or throw myself for a loop in a real and meaningful way, or even start a youth theater company in five years. I wanted nothing, nothing, nothing but to teach these people, to know myself as their teacher.

It's kind of hard to believe I won't.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Friday Poetry: James Tate

I'll get back to the thing where I post with substance in between Friday Poetries soon, I promise. But I'm en route to NYC, about to leave work for the aeroport, so this is not primo posting time.

James Tate
Little Poem with Argyle Socks

Behind every great man,
there sits a rat.
And behind every great rat,
there's a flea.
Beside the flea there is an encyclopedia.
Every now and then the flea sneezes, looks up,
and flies into action, reorganizing history.
The rat says, "God, I hate irony."
To which the great man replies:
"Now now now, darling, drink your tea."