Yesterday the president suggested that the answer to school shootings was to arm teachers. My immediate thought was to ask what sort of arms would be provided. Would I soon be the possessor of a shiny new Glock? What would it feel like to swagger down the hallways with a bulge on my hip, since those things don't fit easily in shoulder holsters? But then, you see, a Glock is a handgun. School shooters use assault rifles which are much more deadly and much more accurate. I'd be spraying bullets around inaccurately when the first round from an AR-15 took my head off, no doubt. And then, knowing that school teachers are armed, wouldn't any future assailant simply don more armor and bullet proof accessories? Or use grenades, perhaps? So here's my idea, presented with the spirit of Jonathan Swift; go ahead and arm me, but if you do then I want an anti-tank gun. Because I know that if the next wave of escalation starts those guys will be coming with much more firepower than they have now. I can only hope it doesn't come to that.
Lessons Taught From a Very Young Child You don’t have to respond to someone just because they call your name and want you to do something. You don’t have to smile on demand. You don’t have to be what anyone wants or expects you to be. You don’t have to perform. Love the people you trust. Trust is a feeling, not a calculation. Ask for what you want. The people who are paying attention will understand what you mean right away, long before you have to shed tears. Be you. Everyone who is paying attention to life will love that you’re being you and will become more themselves as a result. Those who don’t get it won’t get it, ever. Life asks us to play, and if that means the living room looks like a disaster zone after a few minutes that’s perfectly OK. It just goes to show that adults have stopped knowing how to play properly. It’s your job to teach them. Sometimes the wrapping paper and cardboard box really are much more exciting than what’s inside. Loud noises are scary. But anything that even comes half way close to being music is magic. Wonder is everywhere. Join in. It doesn’t matter if you can’t actually speak yet. You can still make encouraging sounds and be part of the conversation. Tents are fun. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Occasionally people ask me why I teach literature. At such times I tend to make a few statements about learning empathy, seeing others' lives, and so on -- and pretty soon my questioner is asleep with eyes wide open, nodding pretend comprehension. So here's another answer. Do you want to live the best life you're capable of? Do you want an exciting, richly fulfilling existence that will bring you joy? If you answered yes, then you're going to need to observe the lives of others and measure your views against theirs, learn from them, and make some decisions about how to be. You're going to need context, so you can stand outside your own life and see it more clearly. You'll need other people to talk with about this information. You'll end up stretching your mind. Good literature brings you all that, and more.
One of the things about restoring the vintage machinery of which I am so fond is that often no decent manuals exist. Sometimes nothing exists at all to tell me how to take it apart and what it will look like when I do. Just try finding some useable record of the Sturmey-Archer 4 speed HW gearbox (circa 1930, cam-operated) and you’ll see what I mean. So I have to proceed thoughtfully, but not timidly. I have to mobilize all I know and also follow intuitions. Blind alleys and mistakes are to be expected. Pig-headed determination will win no prizes. I need to pay attention so I don’t destroy anything by a careless move. And I need to take notes so I can get it all back together again. Just like life. There are no easy answers, no quick fixes. There’s no decent manual, and the ones that exist rarely correspond to the actuality that is uncovered.
Trump’s persecution and deportation of undocumented immigrants (“illegals”) puts the problem as if it were as simple as him taking off one of his ghastly ties and throwing it in the trash. But the comparison is not apt. A better way of looking at it might be this: imagine if one day the elastic woven into your underwear were to disappear. Imagine if the stitching that held your shirt collar on evaporated. Consider what would happen if the glue that holds your shoes together were to cease to exist. These “immigrants” do important work within our society. They are woven into the very fabric of how we run our lives and who we are. If you deport the man who came here, married and raised four children (all of whom have the right to stay by being born here) you do not solve anything. You have merely created four orphans and a single mother. The problem, if it ever existed, is not solved. It is immeasurably increased by this “solution”. A family unit that was self-sufficient is now dependent on the state for its survival. How does that help anything?
Every so often I get to thinking about the non-religious effects of the Bible, and here's one that may not have occurred to you. When the King James Bible was translated in the early seventeenth century it gave the world some wonderful terms to use. I'm sure you have your favorites. Similarly with the book of Common Prayer. This was elevated language for elevated thoughts. The thing is that at that time the number of people who were exchanging elevated thoughts as a matter of course in England was surprisingly few. Farmers, laborers and traders did not speak the way the King James Bible does. Neither did soldiers, sailors, adventurers - only courtiers did, and some clergy. Yet from that time onwards the Bible and the book of Common Prayer were read in church every Sunday to a congregation that had to attend church, by law. And so every citizen began to see that there were in effect two languages, one for every day and one for spiritual thought. At its worst this led to hypocrisy - saying one thing in church and doing another in the larger world. At its best it gave everyone the awareness that there could be more than just one way of being in the world, that we could aim for a higher understanding if we so wished. Those days are now gone. When I think of my students, brought up in a world that is filled with popular culture but often barren of anything else, I wonder if they have any awareness of the two languages, imperfect as those languages might be. I wonder if they know they exist as bodies and as souls.
Every so often I get asked for a brief bio, or I need to send out a resumé, or a CV. It happens all the time to most of us when we have job reviews, or we apply for a new position. In the past I tended to approach such an action with anxiety - was I saying the right things? Would I appear the way I wanted to? Recently, though, I've taken to doing this every so often just as a way of keeping tabs on what I've done and where I've been. It's a bit like one of those FitBits which counts how many paces you've done each day. It's rather consoling to see that, in fact, you've been a bit more active than you thought. Even on a bad, sit-at-the-desk-and-type day I find I've done more movement than I realized. Even when a story is rejected by a magazine I can still say that I wrote it, and sent it out. The key, though, is to be positive. It's never any good to say that something simply isn't good enough or to judge oneself harshly. Instead, just choose to look at what you've managed to do, consider how you tried hard, and recognize that you are still moving forwards, even if at times slowly. Anne Tyler perhaps put it best when she described bringing up her young children and having no time, and being asked by a neighbor what she'd been doing. Was she still writing, the neighbor queried? The temptation was, I'm sure, to say that she'd not had a moment to herself -- but she didn't fall into that. Instead she simply said, "Yes, still writing". Not all triumphs are ticker-tape parades. Sometimes they're just: "Still writing".
It's something I do a fair amount of. Partly this is because as a teacher of literature there are some texts I go back to teaching moderately regularly. The good ones, the world class ones, never fail to give me something new each time I engage with them. At a certain point I also find that I've memorized the shorter pieces, and even some of the longer ones (King Lear), or at least large chunks of them. What I find is that memorizing gives me a new sense of the language, of its power, and as a result I feel a deeper ownership of what I'm reading. The words have carved themselves on my brain without me consciously sitting down to commit them to memory, and the strange alchemy of literature has begun. It has become part of me. To some extent we are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are - whether the story is of success or of failings. But we are also the stories and the emotions that we have drunk in before we know we've chosen them, when a book or poem has entered our souls, when the magic has happened before we know it.
I've been re-reading - after a gap of nearly 40 years - these contemporaries of Shakespeare, and I recall now why it was hard work the first time round. These two dramatists wrote plenty of plays that were successful in their day, yet have not withstood the tests of time. And I think it is really because of one thing - their concept of the human psyche. They revel in putting before us characters who, for one reason or another, are acting in a way that is contrary to what one might expect. Each one appears before us as a personage who is presently doing exactly the opposite of what is expected. So the valiant soldier refuses to fight; the king behaves unregally, the coward is entirely happy in his humiliation, and so on. This keeps the audience guessing. We never know quite what to expect. yet it is strangely disorienting to watch characters becoming quite unlike themselves so often, as they swing between extremes of behavior. I mention this because it highlights something about Shakespeare: his characters do not oscillate so wildly in their passions. Instead they dig deeper and deeper into who they are, often their own type of confused madness (think of King Lear). They become more of who they are, rather than veering between unexplained extremes. Macbeth doesn't change so much as grow into a shocked, desperate awareness of who he has become. That's very different. When we watch current TV offerings we can see plenty of passion and strange behaviors depicted for our entertainment. But do we ever feel we're being sucked into the same space of their obsessions? Do we ever feel that, yes, under other circumstances that could be me? Which leads us to ask: how much of who were currently are and understand ourselves to be was first articulated by Shakespeare?
Not so many years ago there used to be creatures called "travel agents". They used to sort out airlines, connections, and even currency. They charged a small commission but they usually got you a decent deal without any fuss. Today we do it all on-line, with endless confusing airline websites and special deals that may or may not then turn sour with baggage charges, food charges, ticket (!!) charges and so on. In the name of supposedly saving a few bucks we are driving ourselves nuts. This is not progress.