It’s now about thirty minutes after the time when my class ends, but I’ve just returned to my office. Just under two hours ago, I walked into my small, boxy classroom on the third floor and attempted to talk about big things like love, death, and grief as if I have any right to do so. All this in response to two letters by two vastly different men, a physicist, Richard Feynman, contacting his dead wife, and a novelist, Henry James, encouraging his friend Grace Norton through the murky-waved depression that death and grief leave in their wake. During our discussion I could not help but think of my close friend who tried to commit suicide a few years ago, while none of us knew she was depressed, or another friend whose mother did take her own life just over a year ago during holiday time. How do we wrangle experience, come to survive these big things? By placing small things, letters… then words together, and talking to ourselves and one another. As my students said: Listening. Acknowledging: Yes, this feels impossible. No, I cannot know precisely what you are enduring or feeling but still, I care, and hear you, and want to see you through this; I will help however possible. Not that words or silence do all the work, but they offer a beginning to heal.
The thing about an English class is that the content is life, not just composition, even in a composition class. What is the rhetorical situation? Why does it matter in the way we shape information and present it to our audience? Who the fuck cares outside of the class? Okay, mean, inner-student voice…but really, I promise, you will use these skills at some point! (Guess what? One of them confessed she is writing a persuasive letter to an administrator similar to what we have been working on in recent assignments!)
Tonight, after we talked about how individual the process of grieving must be–me at the front of the room well knowing that some of my students have lost siblings and parents and friends already in their short eighteen years/more than I have in my nearly forty–we talked about their final multi-genre assignment, shifting from much more important topics that we will all eventually grapple with to the much more mundane ones related to completing the course. The assignment is a fun one, but one I wish I had not waited to do until the very end of the semester, and I admitted this to them. Still, while I know there is not enough time to do the thing justice, I am thrilled to see them invested in the social justice issues they have chosen; ready to raise hell and awareness in the process.
There is the already vocal and self-identified socialist/activist writing about comprehensive sex education, the quiet girl who is always confused about everything writing about Autism because her younger brother is Autistic, the conservationist writing about anti-fracking, the adopted kid (like me) writing about global and trans-racial adoptions! Just two hours ago I felt incredibly sick; I was suddenly nauseous and my stomach was undone. All the strange stress still lingers from a series of family health crises that have just subsided…giving way to another emerging case of a family drama that I am still processing and will be for a long time, that had me folded into my fetal self, snot-smeared and sobbing. No one had died, though. But I feel afraid, and I know that people will die, and I will have to watch them suffer and struggle and be sick, and I want to help them, those I love, but it’s fucking terrible and hard to confront. But now, sitting here, though I am still going to have to sort through the myriad emotions that come with being abandoned by most of parents for better or worse, almost losing my adopted mother this summer, the idea of my family’s disintegration at the inevitable possibility of my 86.999-year-old grandmother’s death, and now the recent case of my missing biological mother and her discovery, I somehow feel a little better.
This is the thing about teaching: It will and does consume you, but not always in a terrible way. Like the act of writing a long and thoughtful letter to your dead wife, or to your friend who is grief-stricken and suicidal, or editing obituaries for loved ones of close friends as I have recently done, it is a trade that encompasses your full attention and focused time, calling upon your intellect and emotions to strike what you hope will be a precise balance in each lesson, anecdote, word choice, etc., so that even one seemingly transitory moment of informing or inspiring epiphany may reveal a realization that is brand new, as vulnerable and quivering under the sun for the person who gestates it as is ever possible. Labor. Create. As James writes,
I don’t know why we live—the gift of life comes to us from I don’t know what source or for what purpose; but I believe we can go on living for the reason that (always of course up to a certain point) life is the most valuable thing we know anything about and it is therefore presumptively a great mistake to surrender it while there is any yet left in the cup.
Both teaching and writing help me purge and sort, feel and remember again. Both will me to create, revisit, learn, and relive. I know why Richard Feynman kept sacredly sealed the love letter he wrote to his dead wife soon after her too-soon death, admitting his unyielding devotion to her, how much he misses her making up little adventures for them, how he cannot be angry that she was not able to consummate with him as she grew ill since his love was much more than such an action. He needed to say what he could no longer physically speak to her after her departure; he needed to keep his commitments to her and dedicate himself to his love for her, all evidenced on that single piece of paper, with him, close to him, the way he still wished she was, and would always be: with him and in mind, as body, blood, and breath become ink-branded pulp, a symbolic and reverent scripture of their love and shared life.
If only we could all find a person or an idea to love that much more than ourselves. Talking with my students about this and about the mundane details of how to organize their final projects took me outside of my immediate personal concerns, distracted me at times, yet still allowed me to be immersed in the greater themes that underpin those tidal anxieties, and the great courage it takes to wait until they dissipate, to wade through them when they feel all-too powerful. As Henry James says to Grace Norton:
Don’t melt too much into the universe, but be as solid and dense and fixed as you can. We all live together, and those of us who love and know, live so most. We help each other—even unconsciously, each in our own effort, we lighten the effort of others, we contribute to the sum of success, make it possible for others to live. Sorrow comes in great waves—no one can know that better than you—but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us it leaves us on the spot and we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain.
May we all love bravely and resolve to wait rather than to surrender ourselves to dark undercurrents.
In other existential news, here’s one of my long-time favorite poems.