Late-Night Musings: Reading, Writing, Teaching, Living

I forgot that I needed this as a place to make sense of ideas and thoughts. Being at OU for three weeks as both teacher and student, I am overwhelmed by the sea of ideas in which my mind is swimming.

Foucault has a quote drawing on Seneca that I read in an essay by David Bartholomae:

Through the interplay of selected readings and assimilative writing, one should be able to form an identity through which a whole spiritual genealogy can be read. In a chorus there are tenor, bass, and baritone voices, men’s and women’s tones: “The voices of the individual singers are hidden; what we hear is the voices of all together…I would have my mind of such a quality as this; it should be equipped with many arts, many precepts, and patterns of conduct taken from many epochs of history; but all should blend harmoniously into one.”

I love this quote because for me, reading, writing, teaching, and living are things that are inextricably linked. For the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking about how I’m here to read in order to learn how to write better in order to learn how to teach better in order to live more honestly. And those words–read, write, teach, and live–can be shuffled and that sentence still makes sense to me.

I wonder if we can add to Foucault by saying something like: “Through the interplay of selected readings and assimilative writing” as well as interesting friends, families, coworkers, teachers, and students, “one should be able to form an identity through which a whole spiritual genealogy can be read.”

And so, that is to say, I think it’s time to start using this blog again as a place to polish ideas and thoughts, hopefully with your help, to become a better teacher, writer, reader, thinker, and human being. I can’t promise there will be any regularity to my posts or even that they will be anything more than self-indulgent musings, but I’m going to start using this place as a way to publicly upload things I’m thinking about. So thanks for indulging me.

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Super Saturday: Reflections, or, He Shoots Lightning From His Feet

I’m constantly amazed at how applicable my posts before the accident are to me post-accident. This post was originally posted on April 22, 2013.

I want to pack up every thought I’ve had in a box and place it in a corner where I will one day forget about it and when I finally rediscover it I will assume it’s a box of old basketball trophies (the kind you get for participating) and because you can’t do anything with old basketball trophies I will put it out with the trash and never have to think about it again.

I want to pull back all the words I’ve ever spoken as if they existed on measuring tape and I could push a little button on the side of my head and they would all come back to me and even if the shock of all of those words hurt me a little and made me feel a little dizzy at least they would stop hurting anyone they have stung.

I want to walk backwards through life and watch as everything I’ve ever done unravels and I want to know how it feels for the pressure to decrease steadily steadily steadily steadily.

I want to line up every person I’ve ever known and I want to stand on trial before them so they can judge whether I have helped or hurt them not because I want to know if I am a good person or a bad one but because I want to know how to maximize the helping and minimize the hurting.

I want to write down everything and everyone I have ever loved so that I can chart it [love] and diagram it [love] and dissect it [love] and maybe figure out what it [love] means.

I want to curl up into God like He is a king-sized bed and I am a three-year-old child and I want to feel all of my secrets wash away under me deep under the covers into long-forgotten and never-traveled bed-spaces.

I want to gather all the people I have seen but whose names I do not know and feed them cake and throw a party with small talk and then later big talk and then much later tears and when I leave I will know many new names and I will have made many new friends and fallen in love perhaps twice or more.

And I want to dance so hard that I create a storm and no one will be able to get near me and they will look at me and they will say that storm used to be a boy but then he danced and now he shoots lightning from his feet.

A Snapshot of Transition

Somewhere between watching Teen Mom and walking around Detroit something inside him opened up and started beating.

No, that wasn’t exactly the right metaphor. It was more like something that had always been scabbed and bruised had begun to heal and with the healing came the responsibility to keep the thing whole and healthy.

Somewhere between reading Foucault and dreaming about women, a deep patience poured out of him and made him a jittery island of impatience in a calm sea. And suddenly there was time. There was so much time. There was time to question. There was time to rest. There was time to wait. But even for all of the time, he did not want to question, to rest, to wait.

Somewhere between listening to a song by Kendrick Lamar and reading a short story from Sherman Alexie, he wondered at the improbability that he has ever had an original thought. He wondered what pedestal he had ever used to judge other people. He wondered at the limited facts and limited knowledge he had used to form opinions about the world.

The Philosopher and The Poet: Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her

I used to divide my personality into two extremes: the philosopher and the poet. It was how I would defend myself when I did something to hurt someone. I argued that the hurt person had been wooed by my poet-self and hadn’t realized how frustratingly rational my philosopher-self could be.

Over time, I realized this distinction wasn’t satisfactory, and gradually began to consolidate the two selves. I think this consolidation was what drew me to hip-hop; if done right, the beauty of the lyricism and the story-telling (poetic) reveal some rational truth or argument about the world (philosophical).

It is this hip-hop aesthetic that draws me to Junot Díaz. Díaz’s most recent collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her does not shirk from this aesthetic. The collection focuses mostly on Yunior, Díaz’s narrator that he developed in both Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This collection, like Drown, has Yunior as the main character of most of the stories, but unlike Drown, many of the stories focus on Yunior’s early adult years.

Díaz’s prose is beautiful. Laden with slang, the pages have a beat to them. From the first paragraph, Díaz establishes himself as a language musician, effortlessly painting pictures with his rhythmic writing:

I’m not a bad guy. I now that sounds–defensive, unscrupulous–but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole. See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, when I didn’t have to be careful about almost anything, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties free-style hair. Didn’t tell Magda about it, either. You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life. Magda only found out because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.

I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.

Díaz’s language sets up one of many dichotomies that exists within his writing. Of course, Díaz’s entire task is to wreck these dichotomies. In this way the slang versus beauty distinction collapses into a truth in which his writing is beautiful because of his use of slang.

Similarly, Yunior waffles between stories of his youth in which racism manifests itself in terms of poverty and stories of his adulthood in which racism manifests itself in bigoted remarks from white people. This, too, is a false distinction. Both types of racism are undercurrents in all of the stories. The first type explains why he feels so alone in his adulthood and the second explains why he feels like such an outsider in his childhood.

Or there is the dichotomy that exists between Yunior and his older brother Rafa. When Rafa appears in the story, he foils Yunior in such a way that Yunior appears effeminate and bookish. Rafa is the model of manliness and is frequently characterized as a womanizer. But in the stories without Rafa, Yunior himself is a womanizer. A formula quickly appears: Yunior + Rafa = bookish Yunior, Yunior – Rafa = womanizing Yunior. But in the last story in the collection, Díaz obliterates this dichotomy as well. Yunior is a professor at Harvard by this time, but in the very beginning of “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” Yunior admits to sleeping with fifty women while dating his fiancee. In this story, Yunior is both bookish and womanizing.

Díaz also narrates two of the stories–“Alma” and “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”–in the second person. This option fits his simplistic style really well. And it complements Yunior’s self-deprecation.

The magic in Díaz is that somewhere in the stories about women and ex-girlfriends riddled with slang, we get truth–the sorrow and confusion in a brother’s death, the difficulties and triumphs of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and, of course, lost love.

Reflections, or, He Shoots Lightning From His Feet

I want to pack up every thought I’ve had in a box and place it in a corner where I will one day forget about it and when I finally rediscover it I will assume it’s a box of old basketball trophies (the kind you get for participating) and because you can’t do anything with old basketball trophies I will put it out with the trash and never have to think about it again.

I want to pull back all the words I’ve ever spoken as if they existed on measuring tape and I could push a little button on the side of my head and they would all come back to me and even if the shock of all of those words hurt me a little and made me feel a little dizzy at least they would stop hurting anyone they have stung.

I want to walk backwards through life and watch as everything I’ve ever done unravels and I want to know how it feels for the pressure to decrease steadily steadily steadily steadily.

I want to line up every person I’ve ever known and I want to stand on trial before them so they can judge whether I have helped or hurt them not because I want to know if I am a good person or a bad one but because I want to know how to maximize the helping and minimize the hurting.

I want to write down everything and everyone I have ever loved so that I can chart it [love] and diagram it [love] and dissect it [love] and maybe figure out what it [love] means.

I want to curl up into God like He is a king-sized bed and I am a three-year-old child and I want to feel all of my secrets wash away under me deep under the covers into long-forgotten and never-traveled bed-spaces.

I want to gather all the people I have seen but whose names I do not know and feed them cake and throw a party with small talk and then later big talk and then much later tears and when I leave I will know many new names and I will have made many new friends and fallen in love perhaps twice or more.

And I want to dance so hard that I create a storm and no one will be able to get near me and they will look at me and they will say that storm used to be a boy but then he danced and now he shoots lightning from his feet.

So Eden Sank To Grief

I have an odd fascination with things like sand castles and ice sculptures
I assume it’s because I usually find myself dedicating time to things that will only last a few moments
I guess that’s why I fall in love with things that will never love me back

-Ruby Francisco, My Honest Poem

I want to write about religion, but I’m not very good at that so I’m going to write about poetry instead.

I like poetry. Some of you invariably do, too. I used to write a blog of poetry. It existed here. Then I got rid of all the poetry and started this blog. People liked the poetry, but it was nowhere near as popular as this. People would tell me my writing was beautiful or that they respected my words. No one was ever inspired.

I think most people, if forced to choose between Fifty Shades of Grey, The Hunger Games, and The Collected Works of John Donne would pick the first two every time (I might, too!). Unlike some, I don’t think this reflects a spiritual decline in society. I think poetry must answer for this lack of interest.

First, there is a growing amount of bad poetry. Back in John Donne’s day, it was difficult to publish poetry. There weren’t a lot of presses, and even if you were a great writer, you probably spent a couple of years just circulating your stuff around family and friends. And if you were a woman like Mary Wroth (I call her the 17th century Nicki Minaj), you spent many years circulating your stuff. Then, maybe, after you died, someone would get it in his head (usually this was a male thing) to publish your work in a folio together. Obviously, you wouldn’t start this long arduous process if you hadn’t practiced and studied your craft and knew what you were doing.

That’s not how it works today. Today, anyone can start a blog. Bad poetry gets published all the time. If you want a physical book, you can self-publish. It costs nothing to publish an e-book. Bad poetry is everywhere. The noise is loud. We turn to novels and movies and television shows because even if they are poorly written, at least they have a driving plot. Poetry usually doesn’t. It depends on its words.

Second, poetry is meant to be acutely relevant. Sure, the poets of olde wrote lofty poems inspired by women or intense epics meant to excite (although, I would argue that epics are still alive and well in the form of novels and movies). But, many of the poems from long ago that we still study today were written in response to a current event, a friend’s death, a wife’s passing or leaving.

I don’t think we know how to write relevant poetry anymore. The 24-hour news cycle is partly to blame here (although, what can’t we blame on the 24-hour news cycle). It’s difficult to take the necessary amount of time writing about an event when it’s just going to be dusted away in a couple of days anyway. Also, I think it’s difficult to write about experiences while incorporating everything that constitutes modern living. If I write a poem that simply mentions iPhones, it will either be taken as a condemnation or a celebration of them. Unfortunately, poetry desperately needs to mention iPhones to stay current. We shouldn’t start writing about iPhones. We should write about the things we’ve always written about – nature v. man, death, life, love, heartache, loneliness, war, anguish – in short, human emotion. But human emotion is greatly wrapped up in technology now and our poetry should reflect that.

Third, we don’t have time for reflection. Poetry requires space. Lots and lots of space. Poetry is not easy. It’s not something you can understand just after one reading. And I think many of us don’t understand why we should put in the time when we can read things that we can understand immediately. The truth is we don’t know how to discern. If we knew what was bad poetry and what was good poetry, if we knew that when we put the time into a poem, we would get a higher truth, I think we would be more likely to reflect. But we don’t know. So it’s our fault and poetry’s fault. We should create space for it, and poetry should honor that space.

Poetry is meant to inspire. It’s meant to illuminate something bigger and better than ourselves. That’s why we can’t lose it. Poetry is life. That’s what it means when we say a sunset is “poetic.” It means that the beauty inspires us. We can’t lose the language to say that.

I think religion is a lot like poetry.

An Evening Promenade, or, “You a bitch?”

“You a bitch?”

This is Ohio University. This is where I live.

They are standing on the corner of a street when I see them. I am hunched over from the heaviness of my backpack. I am supremely self-conscious of the fact that I am the only one uptown with a backpack. But I just finished an assignment at the library, and I like taking the crowded way home just for the possible opportunity of running into someone I know. This night, I don’t. Instead, I run into them.

In my memory, he is wearing a black Ed Hardy t-shirt. But I think I put that on him retroactively. It’s part of his stereotype. When he comes into my line of sight, he is pumping his fists in the air, yelling at his buddy who just passed me, girl in hand: “Brady! Get some!” It is deep and staccato.

I’m not close enough to see her, but I imagine the girl standing next to him (Ed Hardy man) rolls her eyes. She is clearly intoxicated, stumbling as she stands still and hanging onto his arm for balance. She is wearing a dress that is the perfect mix of alluring and modest. I like her. There is something optimistic about her.

When I walk home at night, I try to keep my head down. It’s easier that way. But my curiosity often gets the better of me, and most of the time, I walk around looking like an old-fashioned sprinkler, spinning my head from side to side so that I can see everything that is going on around me. And so as I walk behind this couple, I can’t help but look at them.

I lag behind, not wanting to awkwardly pass them. We cross a street together. We start heading down the hill.

“But she’s my best friend!”

“Fuck that!” the boy answers throwing his hands up in the air. He’s short, probably not much taller than me, but more muscular.

They stand still and argue for a moment. I slow my pace even more. They have a brief discussion about an Olivia whom the girl absolutely adores and whom the boy accuses of being controlling. The boy grabs her hand, and they start walking again. Their voices bounce from decibel to decibel. They cross the street. The girl pulls her hand away every once in a while, but the boy always forcefully takes it back.

We pass house after house. Many people see them. No one says anything. This is Ohio University. This is where they live. This is not unusual.

When they turn down a side street, I decide to follow. I don’t know what I’m thinking. He’s drunk and in a violent mood. He’s bigger than me. If I speak up, I’m probably going to get beat up. I keep waiting for things to escalate, though. I hide behind mailboxes, willing the girl to say “No” or “Stop” or something that would be a call to action.

They turn into Palmer Place, the site of some of the university’s dirtiest laundry. Broken lawn chairs are scattered around the patios. Empty beer cans are everywhere.

I want to say something to them. I want to ask the girl if she’s alright. I want to tell her that she doesn’t have to go home with him. I want to call the police. My phone is dead, but I’m not sure this warrants an emergency call anyway. But there is a crime, here, certainly. Someone is hurting someone else. I’m not sure what it is, exactly. It might just be a boy living out his role in patriarchy, but it’s hard to tell.

I kick at leaves as I pass them, putting my head down for real this time. I am approaching a party. Five large men sit on a patio. They make lewd remarks to two women who go to a side yard to have a private conference.

“Hey man, I like your backpack!” says one of the men to me.

“Thanks!”

“You a bitch or something?” All of the men laugh. This is Ohio University. This is where I live.