Friday, July 21, 2017

Keep Always your Fire and your Silver: Why I Teach





Why do we do what we do?

The question appeared in an email the other day. It was asked by a fellow college English professor who I don't know personally. We're part of the same listserv group. He was suggesting the summer is a good time to reflect on larger questions like this. I agree.

Keep always your Fire and your Silver.

This phrase appeared on the Facebook page of one of my high school friends, Matt. I hadn't seen Matt since my college days. In high school we were not best friends; he was more a friend of a friend, yet during the last couple of years in high school we hung out quite a bit--enough that I can still remember details about him: Matt was among the funniest, wittiest, and quirkiest people I've met. He loved poetry, and he introduced me to some great music.

It was from a post from Matt's wife, Ann, on his FB page I learned Matt had died: January 17, 2017. Through a link on Matt's FB page, I was able to read his obituary, catching up on what he'd been up to in the 43 years since I'd seen him.

From the obituary I learned that Matt left university to work for a machine shop, then a tractor company; eventually returning to finish his degree and going on to receive his Master's in Education. He then worked in Substance Abuse education for the Wichita public schools before ending his career as a language arts teacher at two different high schools. He was said to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the works of Tolkien and George Martin and was described as a true wordsmith and grammarian who inspired his students to love words as he did.

On Matt's FB page, following his death, one of his students (I presume) posted a photo of a note that Matt had written to her. "Keep always your Fire and your Silver," the note said.

Intrigued by the phrase, I spent awhile Googling to see if Matt had been quoting from a poem or a song. No luck. The closest I came was a rap song ("Keep your silver, give me that gold") and the Scout song about making new friends but keeping the old; one is silver and the other gold. I doubted that either one was what Matt had in mind, so I'm going to guess the phrase was original with him.

When I saw my colleague's question about why we do what we do, I thought about why I teach; then I thought about Matt's note to his student. I hope my friend won't mind if I draw my own conclusions about his phrase and apply them to explain why I teach.

Fire = passion/intellectual curiosity/loving your subject/valuing the life of the mind. It's why I decided teaching was my calling so many years ago. I can't tell you the exact moment, but at some point as I sat in a college literature classroom at Oklahoma Christian University a professor sparked something within me. It might have been the way he got excited when explaining why Emily Dickinson chose this word and not that one or when asking why Donne began his poem with a trochee rather than an iamb. Whatever it was, the spark was lit and there was no turning back. That spark would eventually grow into a flame as I began to think about a career as an English professor. Later in grad school, I remember Dr. Bratton stopping in the middle of our discussion of Wordsworth's poetry and saying, "This is so much fun! I can't believe I get paid to do this."

I can't believe I get paid to do this. That's been pretty much consistently true for me over my 25 years of teaching writing and literature. But, of course, while it's true I love what I do (I get paid to read Shakespeare plays and Anne Lamott books and C. S. Lewis fantasy lit over and over, after all!), there's something else I've learned in those 25 years. Without students, my passion and love of my subject would be pointless. It's the chance to be the generator of that spark that eventually lights the fire in a student that brings true joy. It's seeing the light bulb go on for a student during a class discussion. It's reading the final essay of a student who has struggled mightily with the first two papers and realizing she's really understanding how to write an academic argument. It's sitting with a student in my office talking about graduate programs or how he hopes to use his writing skills in the nonprofit world. It's getting an email from a student who's just successfully completed her first year of grad school or teaching and having them thank me and our department for preparing her well. That's where the fire is. It's the fire that keeps me warm during the wet Oregon winters and keeps my spirits up in the long stretch between Christmas break and Spring break.

Silver = unique gifts/what makes students different, special, and memorable/style/personality/quirky habits/connection
If students were all the same, my job would be incredibly boring. I teach many of the same texts year after year, but it's the differences among the students who encounter those texts that keeps me interested.  There's some students I'll never forget. Like the one who, on the first day of freshman writing was sitting in the windowsill at the back of the classroom. He had not merely scooted his chair near the window; no, he had gotten out of his chair, raised the lower part of the window as high as it would go, and was sitting on the windowsill, as if he wanted to get as far as physically possible away from me and that classroom. Oh boy, I thought, this one's going to be a problem. He turned out to be the brightest light and best writer in the class, going on to become a medical doctor. While in my class, he wrote his persuasive paper on why a persuasive paper was a dumb assignment, using the argumentative techniques covered in class so effectively I had no choice but to give him an A.

There's some students I'd like to forget. No, I won't go there.

Some of my most memorable students have been the ones who've had great challenges to overcome. Like the student whose twin brother had been killed in a freak car accident when they were teenagers. She survived the accident and had to live with that painful memory. She also had impaired hearing that was not entirely compensated for by the hearing aids she wore. In spite of these challenges (or perhaps due to them), she was one of the most cheerful, compassionate, and encouraging people I've ever met. She took on leadership roles at the college including president of her service club and asked me to be the faculty sponsor. Though it was an all-female club, I couldn't say no to this student. After graduating with her English degree, she went to seminary and today serves as a hospital chaplain. Her story and those of many other unique students I treasure in my heart.

Of course, as any teacher knows, each class has its own personality as well. This explains the phenomenon I've often experienced where I use the exact same material and class plan in two sections of the same class. In one class, it leads to the best session ever; in the other, the worst. A few years ago, I had a writing class of English majors who, for whatever reason, clicked as a group. Instead of a collection of individual learners, the class became a community with its own, rather quirky, personality. Someone decided it would be fun to have themed dress days in class and convinced most of the class members to go along with it. So one week would 90s garb, the next 80s, etc. During 60s week I wore my tie dye shirt and received great applause when I revealed it by unbuttoning my long sleeve shirt. My outer shirt was one of those with the western style buttons, so I was able to make the reveal rather dramatic. Needless to say, discussion was not a problem in this class though I did sometimes have to redirect them to the topic for the day.

So why do I do what I do? I teach with hope that something I do or say or emote in the classroom will light a spark in a student. I teach because I recognize what a difference fire can make in forging a life well lived. I teach because I hope each of my students will recognize his or her unique gifts, what he or she is especially good at, what makes him or her special, will value his or her silver. I don't expect them all to become English majors, but whatever they do, I want them to do it because they've identified what their passion is (their fire) and what makes them unique (their silver). I also figured out long ago I can't expect to connect with every student. That's why I have colleagues.

Recently, I was reading some of Thomas Merton's reflections on the nature of the Bible. Merton quoted the passage from II Corinthians where Paul says to the church members at Corinth: "You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men."

Just so I would hope whatever small part I have in helping students nurture their fire and find their silver, those students would become my letter of recommendation, taking what they can from me and using it in even greater ways for a life well lived.

To shift the metallurgical metaphor, here's what I want my students to know, in the word of John Prine:

"You've got gold, gold inside of you.
Well I've got some gold inside me too."

Postscript: I wish I could revise all those graduation notes I've written to students over the years. If I could, I would boil them all down to a single line: "Keep always your Fire and your Silver." I may use it from now on, but if I do, I'll be sure to credit my friend, Matt.



Sunday, June 18, 2017

Lessons I Learned from Dad

It's Father's Day, 2017. I'm missing my dad, who died on New Year's Day, 2012. I wrote this piece a few years before my dad passed and shared it with him and some family members. He didn't say much about it, which was typical of Dad--it made him uncomfortable to talk about himself--but I like to think it meant something to him.  I shared parts of it at his memorial service.


Lessons I Learned from Dad

     I'll skip the obvious ones:  work hard, be a man of your word, love Jesus. When I reflect on what I learned from my dad, it's more about actions, behaviors, attitudes than it is about words he said (though he was good with words, and I remember some of those too).
Teach us to care
     As I look back on my experiences with Dad, I remember him as one who cared, and by that word I mean something like passion.  Some of the things he was passionate about were the big, important things: family, church, the needs of others.  But some of them were things that many would call insignificant.  Take, for example, basketball.  Dad was an athlete and a coach in his younger days, and he followed lots of sports, but the one I associate with him most is basketball.  During my growing up years, he was an avid fan of the Wichita State Shockers, to whose home games he had season tickets. He took it seriously.  Wins were met with much rejoicing, but losses were mourned and hashed and rehashed. I think it was from him I learned how to be a fan.  When you're a fan, objectivity is not an option:  you live and die with the team. You invest yourself in their fortunes.
     Of course, being a fan has its perils.  You can go overboard at times.  I remember the first time I was fortunate enough to go to a Shocker game with him, I was amazed when he voiced his displeasure at a call in loud, rather direct terms. And since his seats were courtside, I'm pretty sure the refs heard him.  I was surprised because in every other setting in which I had witnessed him, my dad was a quiet, unassuming man who seldom raised his voice,  He was a gospel preacher, after all; wasn't he supposed to be setting an example for others?  Looking back, I think the basketball arena provided a space for him where he could set aside his preacher image and just be a "normal" person.  Unfortunately, the lesson I learned was that it was okay to yell at referees, a practice which would get me into trouble later when my sons played high school basketball.  However, the enduring lesson I learned was that part of living, part of being human is caring.
Teach us not to care
     From observing my dad, I learned that some things are not worth caring about:  status, position, material possessions.  I'm not saying Dad didn't like nice stuff; he did.  But he lived simply.  No need to rush out and buy a newer model TV, or car, if the current one was still working.  He was not a self promoter, believing that his actions spoke louder about who he was than any words ever could. He taught me to be suspicious of people who spent too much time caring about or promoting their image.  He also taught me that some things were worth more than others.  He would readily interrupt a quiet evening at home watching a favorite TV program to go help a church member who was having car trouble.
     One of my most embarrassing childhood moments perhaps demonstrated this trait most emphatically for me.  On a hunting trip we stopped for gas.  After the car was full, I asked Dad if I could pull the car forward, ostensibly to make room for other cars, but really because I wanted to experience what driving was like. I was 13 and had never driven any kind of vehicle.  As it happened, the car was in Reverse, not Drive, when I decided to hit the gas, a move that propelled our car into the car directly to our rear.  I felt horrible, of course. What I remember about the incident today is that Dad did not say a harsh word to me and pretty much acted as if it never happened.  Perhaps he knew that I felt bad enough already, but I've often wondered if I would have reacted with as much grace had one of my kids pulled a similar stunt.
Take time to rest
     No one could ever accuse Dad of being lazy.    Throughout my growing up years, he worked what amounted to two full-time jobs, serving as preaching minister for the Northside Church of Christ and as an 8th grade English teacher at Roosevelt Junior High.  Most evenings were filled with hospital visits, and weekends were devoted to sermon preparation and church.  While he worked hard, he always made time for entertainment.  He played golf and tennis at least once a week in the summers, and our family had two summer vacation rituals:  we would spend a week at Table Rock Lake in Missouri, which meant fishing for him and swimming for me and my brother.  And at some point each summer we would take off on a road trip, which meant sightseeing for Mom and Dad and swimming in motel pools for my brother and me.  When I graduated from high school, Mom and I figured out that I had been in 45 of the 50 states.  This rhythm of work and rest was obviously important to him because the routine never varied.  This lesson I am still trying to learn.  So far, I've displayed more of dad's workaholic nature than the rest and relaxation part. 
Put other's needs before your own
     Dad demonstrated a selfless attitude in so many ways, big and small, but I remember most his social grace, what his generation might have called manners.  This characteristic manifested itself in settings like the golf course, where I learned golf etiquette by watching how he invited others to hit first and was careful on the green not to step in someone's path to the cup.  Having dinner at a restaurant, he was concerned, not just about his meal, but about the well being of others at the table.  Perhaps the greatest test of this trait were the last five years of so of Mom's life, where he cared for her as her memory and her ability to care for herself deteriorated as a result of Alzheimer's.  I don't think a selfish person could be a caregiver in such circumstances.  Dad performed the role as if he had been preparing for it all his life, and I guess, in a way, he had.
Find something you do well, something you love to do
     I mentioned earlier that Dad worked two jobs, and I'm convinced he loved both. He never talked much about his teaching job, but I suspect he enjoyed reading literature and discussing it with his students.  He loved words and has always been able to recite long poems from memory.  From him I first learned that words are important, that books contain important ideas, and that poetry is entertaining.  I must have inherited some of his mnemonic facility as well since I can still recite long sections of Eliot's The Waste Land and the prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  I also remember the words to numerous Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan songs from the 70s.
     I know he loved preaching.  I'm sure he didn't have as much time for sermon preparation as he would have liked, but the time he did have, he used well.  One example is telling.  Years before PowerPoint, Dad decided that illustrated sermons might increase audience interest, so he got the idea of using a flannel board to illustrate his Sunday evening sermons.  So after writing a sermon, he would spend hours drawing words and images on flannel-backed paper and cutting them out.  One of the church members helped him build a supersized flannel board that could be hung off the edge of the baptistery at the front of the auditorium. I'm sure these illustrated sermons were viewed as high tech in the 60s and 70s.
     I made my career choice in college based on what I loved, not on what I thought would bring in the most money, and I still suggest to the college students I advise today to do the same.
Old dogs can learn new tricks
     Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my dad came from what I'm certain was the most difficult period of his life: walking with Mom as she lived with Alzheimer's.  About a year after her death he was asked to speak to his fellow church members about the experience.   I'm sure it was the most personal sermon he ever delivered.  What I remember are these lines:  "I learned something new about God through caring for Ann.  I noticed that the more helpless she became, the more I loved her, and it hit me that God loves me, loves us, in the same way.  He doesn't love us because of what we can do or accomplish.  In fact, it's the opposite: the more helpless we become, the more he loves us" (my paraphrase).  Dad went on to reflect that in his years of preaching there were probably times when he expected too much of the people he ministered to, when he was judgmental of their weak attempts to follow Jesus.  His experience with his wife, he said, made him regret those times and wish he had been more loving, more graceful, in fact, more Godlike in those relationships.
     I didn't get to spend this past Father's Day with Dad, but I was able to spend my spring break with him at the retirement apartments that he recently moved to after selling the house he lived in for some 54 years.  He gets around slowly these days with his walker, but he's still alert and can still recite long poems from memory--not bad for an 88-year-old.  Spending the week with him, I noticed many of the same traits I talked about.  Ever the gentleman, at dinnertime, if a resident sitting at his table did not get served, he would flag down the waiter and make sure the person was helped.  Even though he had just moved out of his home, he was more interested in talking about the new home Janet and I had purchased in Oregon.
     And he was still being a fan.  My visit coincided with NCAA March Madness, so we watched a lot of basketball together.  What I noticed was he still retained the old competitive fire.  If he had no particular reason to root for a team based on region or conference, he would still pick a favorite, and he would react with emotion to the ups and downs of that team throughout the game.  He still complained about the bad calls.  He still cared.

Monday, July 18, 2016

I Read Dead People

I bought this bumper sticker at Powell's bookstore. While I enjoy being amused and, more often, disturbed by other people's, I don't do bumper stickers on my car, so I will place this one on my office door.

It seems a good reminder these days as the news gets worse and worse. Almost every day brings word of another act of terrorism or violence.

Every other Facebook post asks me to give in to fear.

My conservative friends think the answer is more law and order and respect for authority.

My progressive friends think the answer is more honest discussion about the deep racial and economic divisions in our country.

It's so stressful, and it's so easy to allow myself to get sucked into the anxiety and negativity and hopelessness. It's easy to become obsessed with what's happening now.

It's at times like these it helps me to read dead people.

Here's a few of the things I mean by reading dead people--and a few reasons I think it's healthy to do so:

By reading dead people I acknowledge that this has all happened before.
C. S Lewis recognized an important tendency in Western society. He called it chronological snobbery and said it was the tendency to believe that our contemporary culture is unique and superior to all the cultures of the past. In technology, it leads to a preference for the latest device. In literature, it leads to a preference for the latest author and to a discounting of dead authors, which Lewis saw as an incalculable loss.

By reading dead people I acknowledge the many ways the authors of the past continue to influence me today.
T. S. Eliot, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," noted how no contemporary author writes without the influence, either conscious or unconscious, of past writers. No poet can write without the shadow of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Dickinson over her. While this awareness can create anxiety for writers ("How can I ever write anything as good as Sonnet 30?"), it also fosters the humility necessary for creating great art. We are, in a sense, only able to write what we write today because of our literary forefathers and foremothers. Or as the Bible puts it: "you drink from wells you did not dig."

By reading dead people I may just discover wisdom I can use today.
Here's a little story about how reading literature works in mysterious ways.

A few months ago, I joined a book discussion at my church about Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. You can check it out here.

Wiman mentions that one of the authors who's been most helpful to him in matters of faith is Fanny Howe, in particular her novel Indivisible. Well, I'd never heard of either Howe or her novel but decided to make a mental note and read Howe's novel later in the summer.

Making a mental note was not a good idea since I promptly forgot about it (see reading too many FB posts, above). Then I was in Powell's the other day looking for something else and, miraculously, the Howe reference came back to me--not as Howe but as "that author that Wiman, I think, referred to in that book." So I found Wiman's memoir on the shelf at Powell's, found the passage where he referred to Howe's novel, and went to look for it. (Technologically savvy readers, please don't judge the fact that I'm not doing this search online.)

As fate, or the literary gods, would have it, Powells didn't carry the novel, but they did have a book of essays by Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun: Notes on Vocation, at a reasonable price--so I bought it. You can check it out here.

In one of Howe's essays, she tells the story of Jacques Lusseyran, a Frenchman I'd never heard of whose life story, And There Was Light, was translated by Elizabeth R. Cameron in 1963. You would do well to read Howe's account for yourself, but here's some highlights:

Lusseyran was born in Paris in 1924. As a child he was fascinated by light, but at the age of eight, a minor accident at school rendered him totally blind. Lusseyran was not deterred. He learned Braille in six weeks and rejoined his friends at school. Neither did he let his blindness eliminate his appreciation for light. Howe writes:

The first thing he discovered, soon after his accident, was that there was a source of light that was not the sun; it hid within his body; he was flooded by it and because of it, he felt the presence of others and objects through their colors.

Soon the Nazis occupied France, and he and his friends decided to form a resistance group made up of students. The group grew and thrived until they were betrayed to the Gestapo by an infiltrator. Lusseyran was beaten but refused to name names or cooperate. In July 1943 he was sent to Buchenwald.

In spite of this turn of events. he did not despair. Howe notes:

He formed friendships, became a leader in the French Resistance inside the camps through translation and the transmission of overheard news reports in German to other prisoners. In January 1944, there were sixty thousand prisoners at Buchenwald. Six months later there were ten thousand.

Now for the wisdom I gained from reading Lusseyran's story:

Near the end of his horrifying account, he tells readers how to get through torture, through imprisonment. There are three things to remember: 'The first of these is that joy does not come from outside for whatever happens to us it is within. The second truth is that light does not come to us from without. Light is in us, even if we have no eyes.' The third is friendship. If you can form close human attachments to those around you you have the possibility of surviving as a human being.

Aren't those three things to remember amazing? And this also amazes:

I would never have heard those three things in just that way had a blind man from France not endured the experiences he did and had he not written them down.

I would never have learned Lusseyran's incredible story had I not read Fanny Howe's book of essays.

I would never have read Fanny Howe's book of essays had I not read Christian Wiman's meditation about his bout with cancer and his struggle to find faith as a poet.

I would never had encountered any of these ideas had I not read dead people.

But since I did and do read dead people, with my newfound wisdom, I may be able to survive another day of FB posts.

I may even be able to survive the Republican and Democratic conventions--at least with Stephen Colbert's help, who, I'm pretty sure, also reads dead people.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

My Prairie Home Companion Prayer


Most Sundays at my church, there's a time set aside for sharing joys and concerns. Members who have something to share with the congregation come to the front, light a candle and place it in a bowl filled with sand, state their name, then say what's on their heart, concluding with "God in your love"" or "God in your mercy," to which the congregation responds "Hear our prayer."

It's one of my favorite parts of the service. Though many concerns center around health issues, either for self or a friend or family member, folks address a wide variety of of joys and concerns. One might share joy at a daughter's graduation or new job while another announces the birth of a grandson. One might relate grief at having to say goodbye to a beloved dog or cat while another mourns the loss of children caused by gun violence. Pretty much anything is fair game.

This past Sunday as I drove to church, I felt moved to share during joys and concerns time, but I wasn't sure the topic was appropriate. I'd been thinking about Garrison Keillor hosting the final performance of his long-running radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, on NPR, July 2, 2016, realizing I had probably listened to my first Lake Wobegon monologue over thirty-five years ago, and pondering how much pleasure the show had brought me over the years. That's a joy worth sharing, right?

As I turned into the church parking lot, I had pretty much convinced myself to do it. After all, I reasoned, though some people (likely the younger ones) will have no idea what I'm talking about, I know for sure we have a lot of NPR junkies in our congregation.  I was beginning to compose in my head the words I would say when I lit my candle for Garrison and his radio show.

But then I remembered today was communion Sunday, and we don't do joys and concerns on communion Sundays.

So since I couldn't share my prayer of joy in church, I'll light a figurative candle here at my blog and share it with any virtual congregants who care to join me.

I'm Gary Tandy, and I'm lighting a candle this morning for Garrison Keillor and the Prairie Home Companion radio show. I realize it may seem odd to pray about a radio show, but this one's given me lots of joy over the years, and it feels right to express my gratitude for it.

When I first heard Garrison Keillor tell stories of growing up in a fundamentalist religious family in the Midwest, I connected easily with the world he portrayed with words. As he talked about being a part of a small movement that saw itself as the "true Christians," as opposed to those liberal and heretical Lutherans and Catholics, I realized that his Sanctified Brethren experience in Minnesota was not far removed from my own, growing up in the Church of Christ in Kansas in the 1960s and 70s. Apparently, as children we heard many of the same warnings: it's a dangerous world out there, so be careful what you see and read and, of course, don't smoke or drink alcohol or play cards or, heaven forbid, dance.  Keillor said when he was a child he used to fantasize that instead of his own family, he had grown up with a modern family in New York where his parents encouraged him to smoke cigarettes and drink wine--and to call them by their first names.

Yes, Keillor poked fun at and looked satirically at the restrictive religious environment in which he grew up, but it was a gentle satire. Its tone was never hateful or dismissive. Though Keillor himself had changed, adopting radically different political and theological ideas than those of his family of origin, he was still able to speak of his family and the people of his town with genuine love and affection and to celebrate the many values they got right: hard work, loyalty, humility, compassion, common decency.

Above all, it was this tone that attracted me to Keillor and his storytelling because it was true to my own feelings and experience as I thought about my past, my family, my church. I admired this ability to look back and not to ignore the flaws or the damaging theology of his past but to continue to love and be grateful for the people who, as often as they made him feel guilty and shameful, made him feel loved and welcomed, valued and protected.

And it's precisely that tone, I think, that is missing in our current American society where we seem not to be able to disagree with people's politics or theology without demonizing them, where we seem not to be able to take an opposing position without denigrating those who hold a different position. Keillor has always provided a model of civility: he doesn't shy away from expressing his opinion, but he treats those who don't share it with respect. It's an approach that says we're still Americans, no matter how much we disagree. We still have much in common. We're in this together.

This is my prayer of joy for Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion. My intellectual, emotional, and spiritual life would not have been the same without them, and for that I'll be forever grateful.

God in your love.

Hear our prayer.


Sunday, March 6, 2016

Belated Thanks to a Writer



As I opened my Facebook news feed on Friday morning and scrolled through the political posts, the selfies of friends, and the hijinx of assorted animals, I was stopped short by a notice that a friend had died. He was 70 years old, and the cause of death was his recently diagnosed pancreatic cancer.


Though I call him a friend, our friendship was extremely one-sided. In fact, I'd never met him, written to him, or even seen him in person. In spite of these facts, it felt like losing a friend because I had read and been intrigued by his books for over thirty years.

Pat Conroy. Writer of novels and memoirs, among them The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, The Water is Wide, and The Prince of Tides. You can read more about his life and literary achievements here.

Why do we as readers connect so strongly to some authors they come to feel like old friends? Why do we not make that connection with other writers--even the ones our friends or the critics tell us we should love?

You would think as someone who teaches literature for a living I might have the answers to those questions, but I don't. I know it goes deeper than subject matter or shared experience. The writer of a letter to Sports Illustrated complimented an SI writer on a recent article by saying the writer made him care about a topic in which he had no interest. So we can like an author, even if she writes about a topic we don't much care for.

And while shared experience certainly helps, it's certainly not essential. I've never gone on a whaling expedition, yet Moby Dick remains one of the novels that interests me most. That's where the vicarious quality of literature comes in.

Tone and style definitely have a lot to do with why I gravitate toward a writer, but as I look at my reading experience, I'm inconsistent on this front, Pat Conroy's style being an excellent example of that inconsistency. Conroy's style can be overblown and verbose. His early model, after all, was Thomas Wolfe of Look Homeward Angel fame. The article linked above notes that Conroy's first draft for the novel Beach Music was some 2100 pages long, so he and his editor spent four months trimming it back to a mere 650+ pages!

But in Conroy's case, I can forgive his florid and the over-the-top style because he tells such powerful stories. And those stories invariably revolve around family.

The Washington Post article points out that most of Conroy's novels were actually thinly veiled accounts of his own life experiences, especially the way growing up in the company of a verbally and physically abusive father shaped him. The article also points out this tendency caused many family members to quit speaking to him. I admire him for writing about his painful experiences anyway. As Anne Lamott rightly observes, if people didn't want you to write bad stuff about them, they should have treated you nicer while they had the chance!

All these reflections still don't answer the question of why Conroy's been one of my favorite authors, so I'll take a shot at it:

Back to the shared experience thing, I was not attracted to Conroy's stories of highly dysfunctional families because those stories mirrored my own experience. Compared to the children in a Conroy novel, my childhood looks like growing up next door to Disneyworld with a perpetual all-day pass.

I think I was attracted to those stories because, while far different from my own experience, they had the ring of truth. They revealed to me that there are parents who do horribly damaging and irreversibly hurtful things to their children. And they showed me that part of the human reality is that children who go through such trauma are forever changed, that they must live their entire lives dealing with and trying to come to terms with that strangest of all creatures: one who can seem to offer love and affection one minute but in the next perpetrate violence and hatred of the worst kind.

A few years ago, I was writing a nonfiction piece about my childhood for a class. I was wanting to illustrate a tendency of my mom's, specifically her fear that someone would think badly about our family. As a child, I often thought Mom was overly concerned about what people might think. It was the reason I couldn't wear jeans to church (even Sunday night service!), to cite a really serious example.

In trying to think of a story outside my own experience to illustrate this point, I remembered the secret that Tom Wingo has so much trouble telling his psychiatrist in The Prince of Tides. It's an horrific tale. One night when their father is away, three escaped convicts break into the Wingo house and rape both Tom and his sister, Savannah, before the older brother returns to the house and unleashes the family's Bengal tiger (something every family should have) on the convicts.

It's such a horrible tale you can understand why a child would supress it and be reluctant to share it with anyone. However, it's what the mother does after the event I've always found most fascinating. The mother orders the boys to bury the dead bodies, and they spend all night scouring the floors and walls to remove the blood. And then she tells the children they are not to tell their father about the incident nor tell any living soul about it as long as they live. Wow, I thought, that's someone who's really serious about keeping secrets! But then what parent would burden their children with such a secret?

I was pleased with myself for remembering the story and thought it added some drama to my nonfiction piece, but the members of my workshop group were not so sure. They failed to see a strong connection to the story I was telling and thought it could be left out without hurting my essay. When the instructor said something similar, I had to agree, so even though I was still reluctant, I decided to drop the Conroy story.

From this experience, I learned two things.

First, one reason I love Conroy is his ability to write really powerful stories and scenes that stay with you as a reader. In the case of my nonfiction piece, I had been so impressed with the story, I had tried to wedge it into a piece of my own where it really didn't fit.

Second, though I said earlier that Conroy's violent childhood was very different than mine, it's also true that most of us probably can find points of connection with the family stories he tells.  My family never had escaped convict-rapists enter our home, but we weren't perfect and we even had our secrets, and when a child observes that it's somehow more important to keep the family secrets and the family reputation intact than to be open and have healthy discussions about our problems, some lasting, psychologically harmful effects can result.

I'm grateful Pat Conroy had the courage to tell his family secrets and to write about his joys and sorrows in such a compelling way. I wish I had written and told him how much I appreciated his work while he was alive, but I didn't, so this will have to do: I will likely watch the film version of The Prince of Tides soon in his honor. And re-read his novels.

And, partly because of his example, I will continue to look for creative ways to tell my own story, for as Conroy showed us, magical things can happen when an author uses powers of memory and imagination to tell his story, which is in some mysterious and wonderfully complex way, my story and your story too because it is the human story after all.

















Saturday, August 8, 2015

Rockin' in the Scholarly World

I'm so excited,
And I just can't hide it.

The Pointer Sisters' 1980s hit song expresses well how I'm feeling these days about, of all things, my scholarship.

As a university professor, I'm evaluated annually on my performance in teaching, service, scholarship, and, because I teach at a faith-based institution, the integration of faith and learning. Of these four areas, scholarship is the one that many faculty at my university worry about the most--especially because we teach four classes per semester. With that kind of teaching load and the expectations for committee work, other service, and active participation in a faith community, it can be tough to find time for the sustained intellectual and writing discipline required to produce journal articles and the occasional book.

Personally, in order to amass the proper number of presentations, articles, and books (whatever that is; no one is ever able to give you a number) to be granted tenure, I chose to specialize. As a result, virtually every presentation and writing project I've undertaken for the last six years has been about a very narrow field of inquiry, specifically the rhetoric and style of C. S. Lewis's prose works.

While specialization has its rewards--it's a good feeling to study one area so deeply that you attain some level of expertise--it also has its downsides. It can seem repetitive after awhile, and you begin to feel like a one trick pony. Whenever I tell Janet about my latest project, for example, she sighs and asks "Are you ever going to write about an author other than C. S. Lewis?"

And this brings me to the reason for my excitement: I'm finally going to write about someone else!

But it gets better.

I get to write about two of my longtime favorite rock stars: Neil Young and Jackson Browne.






If I were to name my all-time favorite singer-songwriters in trinitarian terms, it would look like this:

Bob Dylan (Father)
Neil Young (Son)
Jackson Browne (Holy Ghost)

Truth be told, on some days I could replace Browne with John Prine or perhaps Emmylou (though more for her singing than her songwriting).

So you can imagine how thrilled I was when the opportunity came along to write an academic article about two of my musical heroes.

It happened like this: I was scrolling through postings on a Christianity and Literature list serve when I came across one from a prof who was proposing to edit a volume on Rock and Romanticism. By Romanticism he meant the literary, artistic, philosophical movement in the early nineteenth century. The idea was to explore connections between Rock and Roll artists and the spirit of romanticism.

I immediately began to think about the British Romantic poets--Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats--I teach in my British literature class and how I've noticed echoes from their work in the lyrics of some of my favorite singer-songwriters from the 1960s an 1970s. Because I assumed Dylan would be an obvious choice, I opted for Young and Browne. I sent the prof a proposal for a chapter, and it was accepted.

My tentative title is "I Wandered Lonely as a Rock Star: Neil Young and Jackson Browne as Romantic Lyricists."

This is pretty much a dream writing project for me. I get to research and write about two singer-songwriters whose music got me through high school and college in one piece and whose works I've continued to enjoy over the years. I've also seen both artists in concert multiple times.

And it counts as scholarship!

I've been doing preliminary reading--Neil Young's autobiography and a book on Browne, Cat Stevens, and James Taylor--and I'm feeling a little guilty. Should scholarship really be this much fun?

Because I'm stepping out of my scholarship comfort zone, it feels like--well, the Pointer Sisters say it best:

I'm about to lose control,
And I think I like it. I like it.



Saturday, February 28, 2015

Tooth gaps, Chaucer, and Personality Types

 In fourth grade, I thought the coolest kid in my class was Brian Slobotsky. Not only did he have an awesome last name, but he had this gap between his two front teeth that allowed him to perform an astonishing feat. He would get a mouthful of water from the fountain, form his lips in a circle, and shoot a thin stream of water through that gap, sometime aimed at the water fountain, but more often at one of us. His mad skill provided an endless source of entertainment for our fourth grade class.

When I studied Chaucer in college, I learned that in the middle ages people with a gap between their front teeth were thought to be amorous and overly interested in sex. Thus, when Chaucer introduces his Wif of Bath character, he points out that she is "gat-toothed,"  which apparently explains the fact that she has worked her way through five husbands.

It never occurred to me in fourth grade to question Brian's sexual proclivities, but who knows? I've not heard from him in awhile, so I suppose he could have lived a life of sexual adventure and serial divorce.

Whenever I return to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, as I'm doing now with my early British literature class, I find it fascinating how they so readily equated physical traits with morality or immorality and with specific personality types. Gap-toothedness is a striking example, but there are others. Thus, the Monk, who plays against type with his love of hunting and eating and drinking (in a delightful phrase, Chaucer says it snowed meat and drink in the Monk's house), is predictably plump and has a red face, indicating his sanguine and jolly personality. The Reeve (the superintendent of a large farming operation), on the other hand, is thin as a reed, matching his fiery, choleric personality type.

It's easy enough to laugh at the simplicity and ignorance of our ancestors, of course. After all, we've studied human psychology enough to know that a person's physical appearance has little, if anything, to do with his moral character or personality type.

Or have we? Our obsession with the bodies, physical appearance, and dress of actors at the recently completed Academy Awards ceremony might indicate otherwise. It seems we're still not beyond assuming that someone who is beautiful on the outside is also good on the inside, or at least different than us, with a more sparkling or winsome personality. How many times have I made judgments or assumptions about a person's morality or personality traits based on the size of his waistline? Or assumed that a physically attractive student in one of my classes was, de facto, a good student or scholar?

 When I worked in the corporate world, one company used a simplified personality test with the goal of improving interpersonal communications and productivity. The system looked something like this:

  The Four Personality Types:
•Otter-Expressive-Popular-Sanguine
•Lion-Drive-Powerful-Choleric
•Beaver-Analytical-Perfect-Melancholy
•Golden Retriever-amiable-Peaceful-Phlegmatic 
I don't remember using the animal designations, but all employees in the company took the test and were classified as Expressives, Drivers, Analyticals, or Amiables. They were then put through a training course (which I led) to help them understand more about their type as well as how to interact successfully with other types. 

I remember I was an analytical and that one of the owners of the firm was a driver, what we often call a Type A personality. That the test had some degree of accuracy was confirmed for me when I ran into him in the hallway early one morning and had this exchange:
Me: "Good morning, Bob. How are you."
Bob: "Great! Nothing like a good fight before breakfast!"

 Needless to say, Bob was the owner I had the most trouble working with.

All this leads me to several observations:

  • I do understand the usefulness of these tests. They can be helpful in educational or work environments. For example, if I (an anayltical) am trying to convince my supervisor (a driver) to approve a new company policy, I'm wise not to give him twenty minutes of background detail but instead get straight to the point with a few, well-chosen arguments. 
  • These tests can be dangerous because they encourage our tendency to categorize and stereotype individuals. It's easy to think because a colleague or co-worker or student is an Amiable, for example, we can make any kind of unreasonable demand and they are likely to go along with it for the sake of the relationship.
  • These tests can be dangerous because they cause us to put limits on people's capacities and potential for growth. For example, I might have a colleague who is an analytical and tends to be uncomfortable making presentations to large groups of people. Normally I wouldn't even think of asking her to present before a group because I know how difficult it is for her. But what if an event is coming up where she is clearly the most knowledgeable person about the topic? Perhaps by asking her to step out of her comfort zone and present, I'm doing both her and the audience a favor: my colleague gets a growth opportunity and the audience gets the benefit of her expertise.
So ultimately I guess I'm saying that a human's personality is too complex and unique to be placed in a box--whether it's a personality test designation or a judgment based on physical appearance.

Going back to Chaucer, I have to say those folks in the middle ages had more on the ball than we give them credit for. After all, the contemporary personality types I found through my extensive research (two Google clicks on the Internet) still use the medieval humours (Sanguine, Melancholy, etc.) to try to categorize the mysteries of human behavior.