The Book of Chloe by Chloe Harris

Some years I’m lucky enough to teach a course I’ve designed called Writing for Life. In it, I help students write personal statements for scholarships, internships, or professional and graduate schools. I also work with them as they write personal essays. My aim is to help students see that writing is inextricable from thinking, and, as such, that writing is an important part of a reflective life, no matter what one’s eventual life path.

All students have been affected by COVID-19. But I have particular sympathy for the students of the Class of 2020, who have been denied those important, bittersweet last moments of triumph, expectation, and longing that compose the final weeks of a college career.

As a small way of compensating some of those students–as well as to highlight some outstanding work from my class–I asked three students who wrote particularly excellent final essays if I could share their work here.

The final assignment was to write about an important object in their lives in a way that case light on the object, on the writer, and on some concept or idea that could only be reached by thinking about the relationship between writer and object.  This year, I gave students the choice of reflecting on their experience of the pandemic. I think it will be clear which direction each student chose. At the end of the essay, you can learn more about the writer.

Today’s essay is by Chloe Harris. It is titled The Book of Chloe. You can read the two earlier essays in this series here and here.

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The author’s mother showing off some of her crosses.

The Book of Chloe

I like to read. I used to love to read. My younger self dove into book after book, living vicariously through the main characters, losing all touch with reality while my eyes drank in the details. You would find me curled up on a bench during recess, sneaking to the bathroom during dinner or with a flashlight late at night, catching up with my favorite friends.

When my focus returned to the present, I was involved in a program called National Girls Ministries from Kindergarten to 8th grade. In the later years of the program, we were expected to read the bible every week and write about what we learned. My initial resentment of the assignment for taking me away from the mystical world of wizards and dragons wore away when I started reading more of this Good Book. War, love, sacrifice, betrayal – I couldn’t put it down, reading more than I was assigned every night. I read the entire collection cover to cover, rereading the books that interested me the most. I always skipped Numbers, but Exodus, Thessalonians, Ezekiel, Job and Revelations had pages nearly ripped at the spine from the many times I flipped back through the stories.

I was forging my own sermons by the time I was 11 and even wrote a song for the choir to sing during a Sunday morning service. For each resonating passage I found, I’d practice the way I’d interpret it in front of my mirror, throwing in phrases I’d heard in church and long pauses to build suspense. I suppose this is the first place I found my love for taking leadership, expressing my opinions, connecting with those around me. When I think about the bible, I often think about my father. We shared many moments discussing the verses and relating words written nearly 3000 years ago to twenty-first-century society. He taught me how to see beyond the words, finding meaning hidden in the verses. Our back-and-forth sharpened my mind, opening my eyes to perspectives I hadn’t considered in my initial readings of the captivating stories.

My relationship with religion, and with my father, was commensal. I was a remora fish suctioned on to the belly of large shark. I gained a lot from the shark when I was younger: Protection, nutrients, a great community. Eventually, though, I realized the shark was not gaining anything from me, ignoring my presence when I asked where we were going or suggested an alternate route. Something once so integral to my identity is now only a fading memory.

My parents had been divorced for many years, but my mother opened a new case for custody when I was in 8th grade. She won, and after moving out of my father’s home, I was able to start forming my own opinions. I started questioning the connections we drew from the scriptures more often during the weekends I spent with him. My father’s responses were condescending, rigid, and offered little for my understanding. The more I asked, the harsher his reactions became. A shark snapping at the small fish that swam too close to its snout.

“I don’t understand why God allowed Job to be tortured” My words tip-toed from my mouth as I skimmed over the pages of one of my favorite chapters.

“Mmm? Why’s that?” His eyes peered through his reading glasses as he sorted through papers scattered across the coffee table, too preoccupied to see my furrowed brow.

“Aren’t we supposed to resist Satan’s temptation? It seems like Satan was goading God and rather than ignoring it, God felt challenged and Job suffered for it.” I glanced up from the passage to see my father glaring at me, his glasses pulled away from his face as if to make sure the small windows weren’t impeding his anger. He regurgitated the lesson on how God will test us and the next day, our devotion was centered around what happens to those whose faith strays.

My questions soon turned into statements of disbelief and angry mutterings as my relationship with God became seemingly one-sided and futile. I was tired of hearing “read these verses and pray about it” when I wanted validation. I’m not sure when exactly it happened, but the book I used to love transformed into a tiresome riddle that I was weary of reading. Anger lingered around me for a long time. My anger grew when I couldn’t justify my faith any longer or discuss scripture with my youth group without a cynical shadow looming over the conversations. It exploded when my mom finally told me that the church had shunned her, the kindest woman I have ever known, even as the pastor preached acceptance and community in every sermon. It simmered when I realized the only connection I had with my father was our shared love of the bible and mine was dissipating. I was just angry, and all my rage was directed at God and everything about him.

My father and I never recovered our relationship after I rejected my faith. I haven’t seen him since the summer after my 9th grade year and reading the bible only opens a wound that isn’t fully healed. I stopped going to church services, removed myself from youth group chats and threw away the extensive scripture journal I kept, distancing myself from any reminders of religion. I became the shark, refusing to acknowledge any part of my past that remained attached to me. At least until my mom came home with an obsession with crosses.

My mom’s crazy addiction for the simple shape made seeing them bearable. The excitement and joy she radiated when a new cross settled into its space on the wall made it difficult to look at the shape with disdain. I found myself drawn to her reactions. All giggles and scrunched noses and happy dances while she hung the ones my brothers and I would give her. Mom’s joy was infectious. She was always 100% herself, with chaotic decorations, loud laughter, and random bursts of energy.

During my years in high school, I saw my momma cry for herself for the first time and many more times. Her post-partum depression deepened when we found out she needed surgery to remove a tumor from her cervix. Her hormonal instability worsened when menopause wreaked her endocrine system and she found out my little sister had sensory OCD. Her heart broke when her husband cheated on her and she was facing yet another divorce that she knew would be difficult for everyone involved. I watched her strain to maintain her happiness while the world continually threw shots at her, as if it were trying to find her breaking point. But she never broke. I think the crosses had something to do with it. Despite loving her reactions to them, I was not exactly thrilled about the dozens of crosses gracing the wall right across from our front door. They were obnoxious and loud, with giant gemstones, bright colors, and mismatched patterns painted on the limbs, but I think I think the crosses made her feel closer to God. They reminded her she could shift some of the weight of her burdens onto His shoulders and He would take them, the same way Jesus took them when He carried a cross through Jerusalem.

I started to appreciate God for helping my mom even if I could not bring myself to repair my relationship with Him. He was helping her be who she really was underneath the pain and those crosses reminded her of that. They reminded her of the love she was able to give. During my Pentecostal upbringing, countless sermons reminded me to let the Lord’s light shine from within us. “Show others the kindness and mercy of our savior, let Him lead them to the light through you.” I cannot think of a more light-filled person than mom. Working as a nurse for more than half her life, the patients my mom has taken care of remember her. The words “nurse Kristy” shout to her from across parking lots and in grocery stores when people recognize the woman who took the time to care about who they were rather than what they were diagnosed with. Visiting her at work and seeing the smiles she could bring to the faces of those riddled with cancer and losing hope fueled my determination to make a difference in the medical field – to have her light shining from within me. I strove for many years to shine the way she does, letting the love of God fill her so that when people are around her, they can feel the love too. Her selflessness, empathy, and wholehearted kindness leak from her as if she’s made of a porous material that cannot contain it all. She took a small, simple symbol, and shaped it into something that gave her strength, resilience, openness, and the ability to change.

The older I get, the more I see how much of my mother seeps out of me. I laugh while I’m crying when watching sappy movies, I jump up and down, singing out my words when I’m excited, I cry for my friends and dance to songs in my head when I’m bored. Though my interior design skills are far superior, I am so proud to be her mirror image. The first cross my mom bought was large, nearly 3 feet of bronze decorated with elegant twirls of metal, twisting in and out of large gaps found at the end of each limb. The middle of the cross was a raised hemisphere with small curled knobs circling it, once a dark brown, now shining with oil from the many times my mom rubbed it as she passed. A small gesture reminding her she was okay.

“What you don’t like this one? EEEEK I love it! Y’all know I have my special style!” I raised an eyebrow as mom threw up her arms and pretended to cock a shotgun holding the hot-pink trimmed zebra printed cross in her hands. Hiding my grin, I rolled my eyes and watched her struggle to find space for it on the crowded wall. My eyes skimmed over the bedazzled, glittering objects, falling on the Dallas Cowboys themed cross she was moving to the side and laughing as I cringed. She started humming some hymn I vaguely recognized from church. I felt my chest squeeze tight and the grin drop from my mouth as that familiar feeling of resentment settled over me.

Though my mother and I are so similar, I am sometimes lacking in her ability to let things go, change her thinking and move forward without burdens. My anger toward God fueled an ongoing battle between my past self and the person I was becoming. It took a lot of energy to house all that hatred, to blame a single entity for every negative aspect of my past and work to forget a lifetime of experiences. For a long time, I saw my religious past and the relationship I had with my father as something that needed to be cut off so that I could grow into who I was meant to be. I realize now that I did not lose a part of myself when my opinions and beliefs contradicted the rigid interpretations my father had laid out for me. I reshaped it. I reshaped it the way my mom is constantly reshaping herself so she is not consumed by morbid and harmful realities and can accept the world as it is.

My religious past gave me critical thinking skills. Sitting criss-cross applesauce at the end of my bed, my neck craned over the yellowing pages of a bible, I saw more than laws and stories. I found my opinions. I owned my voice. When reading essays and research articles, I appreciate their beauty and intelligence, but still critique and interpret their meanings.  The bible gave me a curious mind and a desire to understand the afflictions of those suffering. I am not easily satisfied with unanswered questions. I push and I speculate, and I can change my mind. My mom’s relationship with crosses reminded me of my ability to see things in different perspectives while respecting each one. She helped to put aside the pain I held onto. I am still a shark. Swimming along with my remora fish, no longer ignoring the suggestions and lessons they have, I use their guidance to build my own path. I do not have the same relationship with my father or God as I once did, but I am grateful for the things they taught me.

“This is great, Chloe Anne-Marie. You wrote this all by yourself?” I struggle to picture the blurry face of my father as he said these words the first time I brought him a sermon. Written in purple marker with small yellow flowers, orange fish and blue crosses decorating the borders, the paper filled me with pride. “You need to reference the bible more often though,” his cheery tone turned flat, “or these are just your words and not words that were given to you by God.” I watched as he stenciled in possible verses, slashing his black ball point pen through the words I had practiced a dozen times in the mirror. My eyes glued themselves to the wrinkles lining his forehead while my teeth dug into the soft flesh of my cheek. I wrote two sermons later that night. One was written in pen, with the addition of versus and quotes from the bible lying neatly on my father’s desk. The other, a replica of the original, hanging beside my bed, signed Chloe Harris.

Fin

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Born and raised in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Chloe Harris graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in biochemistry and molecular biology from Hendrix College. She will go on to work in a urology clinic during her gap year before attending medical school next fall. When she isn’t making detailed lists or talking off her friends’ ears, she’s covered in paint and hunched over a canvas. 

Split by Connor Onitsuka

Some years I’m lucky enough to teach a course I’ve designed called Writing for Life. In it, I help students write personal statements for scholarships, internships, or professional and graduate schools. I also work with them as they write personal essays. My aim is to help students see that writing is inextricable from thinking, and, as such, that writing is an important part of a reflective life, no matter what one’s eventual life path.

All students have been affected by COVID-19. But I have particular sympathy for the students of the Class of 2020, who have been denied those important, bittersweet last moments of triumph, expectation, and longing that compose the final weeks of a college career.

As a small way of compensating some of those students–as well as to highlight some outstanding work from my class–I asked three students who wrote particularly excellent final essays if I could share their work here.

The final assignment was to write about an important object in their lives in a way that case light on the object, on the writer, and on some concept or idea that could only be reached by thinking about the relationship between writer and object.  This year, I gave students the choice of reflecting on their experience of the pandemic. I think it will be clear which direction each student chose. At the end of the essay, you can learn more about the writer.

Today’s essay is by Connor Onitsuka. It is titled Split.

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The author’s bike, front left

Split

            It can’t be that hard, right? The thin tires on the 52-inch road bike stared me down as I hoisted myself over the seat. What are these things where the pedals should be? Setting my feet on the clip-on pedals, I rubbed around on the smooth, oval-shaped pedals to try to get a better grip. When I shifted my whopping 112 pounds of weight onto the cracked seat of the bike, the pale white frame creaked a little. I pushed off to a wobbling start, straining my hands on the short bullhorn handles, struggling to stay balanced. After a block, though, I was getting used to the thin tires. Faster. With each revolution of the wheel, I felt my anxieties whip away, my stressors left far behind. Before I knew it, my twists and turns around the block had taken me right back.

“How was it?” Mom asked. She told me she’d pay for half of a cheap road bike so I could shuttle myself to and from school, since she worked over forty minutes away.

“I think it’ll work.”

I spent my years of high school running. Not in the literal sense: I quit cross country my sophomore year. The competitive aspect of cross country, the meets, the expectation to improve, and the daily time commitment drove me away from it rather quickly. Instead, with my new-used bike, I pedalled away from everything I loathed, as fast and as often as I could.

For a beginner’s road bike, the vintage Bianchi I found on Craigslist in my sophomore year wasn’t all that bad. Mom and I took it to a bike shop after we bought it, where we were told that a few spokes on each wheel had cracked. It rode fine though. Mom paid for the tune up and every safety-related item imaginable: a helmet, 650 lumen light, Kryptonite U-lock, flat repair kit, and some shiny reflectors to tie around my ankles at night. The bill came out in the hundreds. Though expensive, it was not the last price Mom would pay after we bought the bike. Rather than simple, reliable transportation, she bought my liberation – from my responsibilities, from school, and tragically, from our relationship.

By high school, my near-perfect relationship with Mom had changed drastically. Throughout my parent’s divorce, I spent most of my time with Mom, who won primary custody over me and my sister. We preferred spending time with her anyway; Dad was an ass. Mom has always been caring and silly, and provided a solid foundation for us throughout a chaotic divorce. As my sense of humor and identity developed through elementary and middle school, she and I would banter about the girls I might or might not, but definitely didn’t like, or how my sister might never stop wearing striped skirts and checkered knee-highs. Unfortunately, the once playful banter between Mom and I became harsh and hurtful when I started high school.

Mom and I fought and bickered daily after the first semester of my freshman year. She questioned me about my choice in friends, my time spent playing video games each day, or why I was acting like I was high on a drug I’ve never done. We drove to school in a tan 1999 Camry that was sunbleached and crunchy, constantly requiring some kind of tune-up or replacement. The Camry was a replacement for Mom’s reliable Honda Odyssey that had been totaled in an unfortunate run-in with FedEx.

Unlike the Odyssey, riding in the Camry was a trap. Not so much because it was unreliable—although it was: the windows worked about half of the time, and the locks even less—but because when I was in the car with Mom, it was lecture time. On shorter drives, I would get a quick check in on my attendance or a comment about how Mom hadn’t slept well because I was up all night yelling at my video games. On the longer drives, quippy remarks would metamorphose into a full-fledged life lesson I’d heard four times before. I felt penned in by the Camry, and I figured that I could probably get to anything within the city faster on my little white bike.

It’s hard for me to tell whether getting a bike was ultimately beneficial. Aside from the obvious boon of physical exercise, it helped me find a new pastime after quitting soccer and cross country. It saved me from playing more than 8 hours of video games alone in my room, instead shuttling me to my friends’ houses, where we could play video games together in their rooms. At the same time, I hurt myself and my relationship with Mom by getting a bike. I crashed an absurd number of times, with permanent scars serving as ugly reminders. Out of all of the safety items Mom had bought, I used the light when night came, the U-lock, and sometimes the helmet. I remember sneaking home a bloody meat crayon, lucky to have avoided broken bones and brain damage, avoiding Mom’s concerned gaze as I scuttled up to my room.

By my senior year, my goal of being valedictorian had been downshifted to “show up today.” A combination of boredom and stressors from home and school made going to class feel suffocating. Ironically, Mom had helped me buy my bike, and in turn, she lost her son for the better portion of two years. It turns out my bike hadn’t just provided freedom, it also contributed towards a twisted retaliation against my wonderful mom.

This retaliation manifested itself in my school attendance. Due to a failure in my high school’s attendance policy, I could have as many absences or tardies as I wanted, as long as I showed up to class once every two weeks. Mom let me bike myself to school, so over my final semester in high school, I accrued ninety-eight absences and thirty-something tardies. Though I typically attended my difficult classes like AP physics and calculus, my grades and classroom relationships suffered. For the first twenty or so absences, Mom received a call from the school and begged me to get to school on time. After weeks of daily voicemails, she gave up. Liberated from her lectures attempting to make me go to class, I capitalized on my victory by continuing my rampant streak of delinquency, unaware of the stress Mom was shouldering on my behalf.

My relationship with Mom improved drastically after I left for college. College itself was another attempt at an escape, but when I came home for the longer breaks, things were as though the last few years had never happened. We were back to our usual banter, complaining about my sister’s messy room or how our evil cat wouldn’t let us pet her. I still went on bike rides, though they weren’t meant to escape so much as a means of simple transportation.

Petty crime had been steadily rising in Portland while I was away for school, according to Mom. My now rickety old white bike, despite no longer looking like something remotely worth stealing, disappeared one afternoon. The U-lock was left cracked and discarded a few feet from the bike stand. For the rest of the summer, I opted to take rides with Mom in her old Camry that had just crested 200,000 miles. What once guaranteed long lectures with no escape became another place Mom and I could make up for lost time – I was happy to ask for rides, or drive when she didn’t want to.

The bike had been stolen once before, too. During my junior year, my attendance began wavering, especially for classes scheduled earlier in the mornings. Shortly after winter break, I woke up to the sound of my laptop playing YouTube videos, still running by autoplay from the night before. It was already 10:00. At this point in my high school career, I still felt remorseful for missing class. I was at school by 10:30, my hair greasy and clothes soaked by the perpetual Portland drizzle. In my haste I managed to forget the U-lock, but I couldn’t afford to miss another class to go get it. Doing my best to conceal the lack of a lock, I rested the contraption between a few other dingy-looking bicycles.

Inevitably, the bike was stolen during class and I was left stranded at school. Mom was strangely understanding on the phone, rushing home from work to pick me up. We spent hours searching the school and surrounding park for signs of the bike. Miraculously, we found it and two other bikes locked to the railings at the parking lot furthest away from the school buildings. Mom suggested I lock my bike to the railing with my own U-lock she had brought from home, and come back in the morning. My bike made it through the night, and the next day, the foreign lock had disappeared, along with the two other bikes.

To this day, I don’t understand why Mom worked so hard to save my bike. She knew it granted me the freedom to be absent from the house and from school. Maybe she assumed I’d find another way to escape anyway. I’m afraid to ask, mostly because I feel ashamed that I used the freedom she offered to hurt her. Though I haven’t voiced it – I don’t know why, either – I’ve been doing my best to make amends. The second time the bike was stolen provided a perfect opportunity to assure Mom I no longer felt the need to escape.

I didn’t consider it much of a loss when my bike was gone for good. Financially, the bike was probably worth less than the steel it was made of. Emotionally, I blamed the bike for the time I lost that I could’ve spent with Mom. Despite my unfair assessment, the bike was dead to me. I was happy to drive around with Mom, who had just started working from home. We took the Camry, still chugging along, to go bowling after dinner, to bubble tea shops and cafes, and sometimes nowhere, just to chat. High school-me would have immediately gone out to get another bike. In fact, Mom offered to help me find another. I declined under the reasoning that I would only be there for the summer anyway, leaving unvoiced the excitement of more rides in the Camry.

Last summer, my sister finally nabbed a driver’s license and utilized Mom’s Camry to its fullest extent. Out of necessity, I searched Craigslist for another road bike, and once again, Mom offered to split the cost. My new bike, a beautifully marbled black racing bike, took me to and from work downtown. It didn’t see much use outside of exercise and transportation, though. When the Camry was free to use, Mom and I would head out to the store to find ingredients for a new recipe to test, or to a bar, where we drank BFK’s (coffee mixed with Bailey’s, Frangelico, and Kahlua) to gab and gossip. After college, I’m sure we’ll take the old, reliable Camry out to keep making up for lost time.

I’ve been trying to train up to a marathon. When I first mentioned the idea to Mom, she was hesitant but supportive. Over winter break, we drove from store to store, comparing different running shoes that could live up to the arduous 26.2-mile task.  I found a pair of shoes I liked, and took them for a test run around the block. Taking off down the street, I felt comfortable knowing that my feet weren’t whisking me away from anywhere or anything in particular. At the end of the test run, I was happy to find myself back where I started, with Mom.

“How are they?” She asked. Once again, she offered to split the cost.

“I think they’ll work.”

We had a nice drive home.

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Connor Onitsuka, who is from Portland, Oregon, double majored in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BCMB) and Neuroscience at Hendrix college. He’ll be taking a gap year to shadow and work as a scribe in Portland, while also spending time with his cat and drinking bubble tea.

Six Feet Apart by Chelbi Gilmore

Some years I’m lucky enough to teach a course I’ve designed called Writing for Life. In it, I help students write personal statements for scholarships, internships, or professional and graduate schools. I also work with them as they write personal essays. My aim is to help students see that writing is inextricable from thinking, and, as such, that writing is an important part of a reflective life, no matter what one’s eventual life path.

All students have been affected by COVID-19. But I have particular sympathy for the students of the Class of 2020, who have been denied those important, bittersweet last moments of triumph, expectation, and longing that compose the final weeks of a college career.

As a small way of compensating some of those students–as well as to highlight some outstanding work from my class–I asked three students who wrote particularly excellent final essays if I could share their work here.

The final assignment was to write about an important object in their lives in a way that case light on the object, on the writer, and on some concept or idea that could only be reached by thinking about the relationship between writer and object.  This year, I gave students the choice of reflecting on their experience of the pandemic. I think it will be clear which direction each student chose. At the end of the essay, you can learn more about the writer.

Today’s essay is by Chelbi Gilmore. It is titled Six Feet Apart.

Chelbi Treehouse

A treehouse the author’s father built for her and her sister. (Since lowered and used for storage.)

Six Feet Apart

   I sit on my bed, attempting to do homework, while my parents and sister argue about Easter plans in the living room. I try to tune them out and focus on what I’m working on, but this quickly proves to be impossible. I dread walking in there and being dragged into another hour-long conversation that ultimately ends without resolution.

This is how our nights are spent now, arguing about how we should respond to the current global COVID-19 pandemic. Tonight, they’re discussing whether we should participate in our normal Easter routine: attending church and having an egg hunt for the kids. My dad leads a house church, which means that 6-7 families meet in someone’s home each week and he gives a short sermon. It’s not traditional, but we love the close bond that has formed among all the members. He has continued to hold a house church service every Sunday during the coronavirus outbreak. My mom and I have abstained from attending, which has caused dissent in my family. We believe that having 25 people in a confined space during this time is socially irresponsible, but my dad doesn’t see the problem.

“I just wish you guys would stay home more,” I hear my mom say.

“We’re not together even when we are here!” my sister yells back.

She’s not wrong. Even when we’re all home, we watch TV and work in separate rooms, only gathering for dinner. When we’re all together, we feel the tension that the outbreak has caused our family. I know inevitably I will be dragged into the dispute, so I finally decide to leave the comfort of my room and join the rest of my feuding family. I walk into the living room and sit next to my mom on our couch, which is facing my dad and sister standing on the opposite side of the room. We’re six feet apart, even in our own home.

When the outbreak started making headlines, I didn’t anticipate people would have such mixed reactions to it. I assumed everyone would do everything the CDC recommends and self-isolate inside their homes to avoid unknowingly spreading the disease. However, in my family of four I’ve seen firsthand how much dissent these recommendations have caused. My mom and I have taken the federal and state directives, like staying six feet apart from people in public, seriously and refuse to leave our house except for essential reasons. My dad, on the other hand, believes that everyone’s overreacting about the virus. Other than washing his hands more frequently, he has made few changes in his life to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Every day, around five o’clock, my dad comes home from work, changes clothes, and leaves again to go to our local park to play disc golf with his friends. I haven’t seen any of my friends in person for almost two months now, but my dad continues to hang out with his every single day and risks exposing them or us to the virus. After arguing about this irresponsible practice repeatedly, my mom and I eventually grew too exhausted to continue trying to change his mind.

It seemed fitting that on Friday the 13th we received the email informing us we would not be returning to college after that weekend. At first, I only felt bummed to be missing out on the last two months of time with the friends that I had spent almost every day with for four years. At this point, I didn’t comprehend what the full impact of the COVID-19 outbreak would be. I thought I was simply going to move back into my parent’s house and spend my days in front of my computer, bored, as I log into this new virtual version of school. I couldn’t have foreseen the stress that would come with moving back home.

Well, perhaps I could have. My dad and I have always disagreed about politics, but we’re able to have (mostly) calm conversations explaining our beliefs. After Donald Trump was elected president, we began to have these disputes more frequently. The night of November 8, 2016, I remember sitting for hours with many of my peers at Hendrix, watching the election polls. We continued watching way after we realized that there was no chance Hillary Clinton would win. It’s like we couldn’t bear to look away from the disaster that was unfolding before us. People cried as we walked back to our rooms in the early hours of the next morning, grieving the livelihoods of everyone that would be affected by Trump’s horrible policies. My dad, on the other hand, was rejoicing 120 miles away in my childhood home. Ever since Trump began campaigning for the presidency, my dad has supported him. He claims that it’s refreshing to see a president who doesn’t act as a politician, but rather says exactly what he thinks. He argues that Trump is an advocate for “working class people” and can’t see that he alienates many people, some who would even fall into the “working class” category. I point out to my dad the reason Trump doesn’t act like a politician is because he has absolutely no idea how to run our country. In the past few years, we’ve had numerous debates about abortion, immigration, healthcare policies, etc. Neither of us are willing to completely compromise, but we’re always willing to listen to each other.

For the first time, I feel like my dad isn’t responsive to my point of view at all. In the past, he’s always been willing to listen to the reasons for my beliefs. His opinion didn’t feel as rigid as his opinions about COVID-19 feel. I think this is because with most issues he doesn’t completely disagree with me, but rather, he prioritizes something else. For example, during our many disputes about President Trump’s immigration policies, I always point out that some people who immigrate to the United States do so because they feel like they have no other choice. Many people that Trump is trying to keep out of this country are seeking refuge from terrible situations. My dad does not argue with this fact; however, he says that immigrants are “taking jobs from American people”. He agrees that these people need help, but he prioritizes the U.S. economy over this need. So, while he mostly disagrees with me, he acknowledges that I am right in some respects. In contrast, we both see our argument regarding social distancing as purely black and white. There is no movement towards agreement; we’re in a stalemate.

Now, I don’t mean to make my dad seem like a terrible person. He’s one of my favorite people and has always supported me in my endeavors. For example, he wanted me to completely focus on my schoolwork in college, so he supported me financially, even though my parents didn’t have the excess money to give. He sacrifices everything for not only myself, but the rest of my family too. In our family, he’s the guy who will always help you out, no matter what you’re asking of him. There have been many times when he would get a call from one of his cousins who were in trouble because they’d spent all their money on drugs. He loans them money that he knows he’ll never get back. My dad always helps the people around him, even if they continually ask for his help and give nothing in return. He owns a small construction company and makes a point to hire people who can’t find a job anywhere else. My dad not only supplies them a job, but also truly cares for them. Recently, one of his guys decided to separate from his wife, so he needed somewhere to live. My dad let him stay in my late grandma’s house for free until he could afford to pay rent. He lets friends borrow his truck, lawn mower, construction equipment, and tools whenever they may need. He does all this for the people in his life, so why does he not care about those affected by COVID-19 or Trump’s administration?

I think many of our differences can be attributed to what we’ve been exposed to in our lives. My dad went to work at his family’s construction company straight out of high school. Shortly after this, he met my mom and they were engaged nine months later. They built the house that I grew up in together, which means that he moved directly from his parents’ house in with my mom. She has a similar story. She was raised one town over from my dad and married him within a year of graduating high school. I cherish their small-town love story, but it means that they haven’t experienced much outside of the place they’ve lived their whole lives. For me, there were many positives to growing up in a small town. For example, it was easy to make friends because I saw the same people every day in school for 13 years. However, there are downsides to this kind of community too. I was never exposed to people from a different background than me, so I didn’t truly value a diverse community until I came to college. My parents have always lived in the same area with an overwhelming number of white, southern, traditional people, so I think they struggle to sympathize with those who are different than them. For them, voting for Trump is the most natural thing to do because everyone around them supports him too. I wish that my parents could experience what life is like for those discriminated against by the Trump administration, even just for one day.

While my sister and I grew up in the same geographical area as my parents, we were also raised in a time when everyone is connected online. We were exposed to different perspectives simply by being on social media. I think that the media I consumed played a huge role in my acceptance of people who are different than me. Of course, there are still many ways that TV shows and movies could be more inclusive, but as the shows I watched become more accepting of people’s experiences, so did I. When I began college, I was surrounded by people who valued diversity. Now, I almost forget that other people in my life don’t think the same as me.

Even though my sister also grew up in the “digital age”, she has still chosen to align herself with my dad in this heated debate about COVID-19. I don’t think her experience with diversity in media has influenced her feelings about the pandemic. The only reason she “agrees” with my dad is so she can continue hanging out with her few friends still willing to socialize. She’s always been eager to soak up whatever the people around her think, especially my parents. She is a “people pleaser”, so she thinks like the people she wants to please. It’s simply easier to regurgitate what my dad shouts at the news every night. So, when my family started arguing about how we should respond to the coronavirus outbreak, she chose the side that would allow her to continue doing what she wanted to do. I’m not saying that my sister doesn’t have any individuality, but she does tend to accept the information that my parents tell her without researching to decide what she believes.

Despite our differences, my family has always been close. We’ve never been this divided over an issue, or at least we’ve never acknowledged it. Maybe I didn’t allow myself to dwell on the problems I have with my parents’ beliefs. Until now, I’ve always been able to escape conflict by going back to my friends at Hendrix. It’s difficult for me to reconcile my love for my family and the frustration I feel towards them for their beliefs. To me, it seems so clear that we must do everything we can to “flatten the curve” and keep others healthy. However, my dad has a completely different perspective. He believes that the media is causing panic among the American people, so we don’t need to change our daily habits to stop the spread of the virus. No matter how hard my dad and I try, we can’t see why the other person thinks the way that they do.

He always tells me that my “bleeding heart” will get me in trouble. He says I think about others too much and should think more practically about how the economy is negatively impacted when the U.S. government helps others. It seems so strange to me that he says this when he has a “bleeding heart” for everyone he knows. It’s easy for him to prioritize economic gain over a human life when it isn’t directly in front of him. However, if the issue is off in the distance, he separates his feelings and refuses to care about people he doesn’t personally know.

In my living room, the night before Easter, my mom and I are stationed on one side of the room opposite of my dad and sister. My sister and I mostly let our parents do the arguing. I interject a few times when it seems I might explode if I don’t let my thoughts out. One time, I tell my dad how I can’t bear the thought of accidentally passing the coronavirus to an elderly couple in our church.

“See, I don’t think like that,” my dad replies. “I don’t live my life in fear of what might happen!”

My mom and I try to convince him that we aren’t fearful, but cautious of how our actions affect others. I’m not afraid for my life, however, I don’t want to jeopardize the lives of others. My dad thinks we’re silly for thinking this way, but I don’t care. Even if my mom and I are completely wrong about COVID-19 and the disease isn’t as infectious as the CDC says, I would rather be on the side of caution than in my dad and sister’s position.

“I just want us all to be together on Easter,” my mom says, implying that she wants my dad and sister not to participate in the festivities tomorrow. My dad concedes and decides to stay home the next day. This is not a permanent solution. Next week, they will be right back to their regular scheduled outings each Sunday. We will continue to isolate ourselves in our rooms to avoid this repeated conflict, wishing for the eventual day when the COVID-19 pandemic ends. Hopefully, at that point the divide in our family won’t be so deep that it’s irreparable and we’ll be able to close the six-foot gap between us.

Chelbi

Chelbi Gilmore is from the small town of Alma, Arkansas and recently graduated from Hendrix College. She will start working as a medical scribe in central Arkansas this summer and plans to apply to medical school in the fall. 

 

Do I Read Enough Great Books?

One of the highlights of last year was getting to meet Tom (aka Amateur Reader) of the titanic lit blog Wuthering Expectations in person. He and his wife, a great reader in her own right, actually came through Little Rock (no one does that), and we had them over for brunch. Tom is as funny in real life as he is in writing. He will also drink wine at lunchtime, which is a valuable quality in a person.

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Candida Höfer, Trinity College Library, Dublin

I mention all this because Tom recently wrote about end of year lists and the kinds of reading that many bloggers do. What does it mean, he wondered, to speak of “the best book he read all year” when he reads mostly classics? What’s going to be better than the Iliad? (To which I would say the Odyssey, but that’s not the point.) Although I’m sure it’s the last thing he intended, Tom’s post sent me into something of a tailspin. I keep thinking about it, worrying over it. It’s brought out some longstanding readerly insecurities. Am I reading what I should be reading? What the hell does “should” mean there anyway? Well, am I reading enough important books? Meaning? Books that are worth my time? I’ve no interest here in making an argument for “the canon”: as one of my mentors, Molly Hite, used to say, canons are inescapable, but we shouldn’t be rigid about them, after all they’re going to change. Canons, not the canon. In a comment (it might actually be on another of Tom’s posts, I’m having trouble finding it at the moment) Stephen Dodson, of another titanic blog, Languagehat, used the term “memorable books,” which I seized on gratefully in my deliberations, as it shifts the terms away from value. [Note: Tom tells me the term comes from Necromancy Jeanne, who expanded it into a little essay. My apologies!]

Which is to say, my title is falsely provocative/click-bait-y, sorry. It should be, Do I Read Enough Memorable Books? Over the course of my reading life I’ve read plenty of memorable books. It’s also true that most books are not that awesome, just like anything else: you have to read plenty of mediocre stuff to find something memorable. And I also pride myself (and the fact that I feel this way implies part of me must feel there’s something wrongheaded, even disreputable, about that response) on reading a reasonably wide variety of books: different genres, different writers, different concerns, though it’s true I mostly read books from about 1890 to the present, and mostly prose fiction, and mostly ones from/about European/Jewish writers and topics.

But I worry that a diet of crime fiction and novels plucked from the new arrivals shelf of the library (combined these sorts of books make up a fair chunk of my annual reading) is neither the most satisfying nor the most meaningful use of my finite reading time. (“Meaningful” here meaning, likely to generate memorable reading experiences.) I’m curious about a lot of things, and I’m interested in what’s going on in kids’ books and science fiction and biographies and essays and comics, although in the end I only dabble in those areas. Sometimes my reading from these genres does generate memorable experiences. But for me it is most often the case that difficult books are more likely to do so: difficult not as in esoteric or experimental, necessarily, but as in syntactically and linguistically and formally challenging.

I teach reading and writing for a living, and at the end of the day, when I’ve finished that work (inasmuch as it ever ends) I’m often tired. Many of the books I suspect might be memorable (and here I know I’m shading into a more conventional use of “literary classics”: maybe this whole post is just a convoluted way of writing about old-fashioned “great books”) are hard to read. Or hard-ish anyway. They demand more attention than the shiny new book from the library, attention I don’t always have in the half hour before sleep.

A big part of me thinks that people should read whatever they feel like reading. The point of reading is to read, and all kinds of books can be enjoyable and, yes, memorable. I’m quite skilled at finding so many ways to torture myself, why do I need to bring that same fault-finding to reading, which is supposedly the thing I love to do more than anything? Part of me thinks this whole post is wrong-headed and foolish. But part of me doesn’t. Why is there part of me that can’t help but think I’m doing this reading thing as well as I might?

Do any of you ever feel this way?

Strangers in their Own Land: Jewish Self-Awareness in Holocaust Memoirs.

Earlier this semester, I presented for the third time at the annual Arkansas Holocaust Education Conference. In addition to giving the keynote talk (“Holocaust 101”), I also taught a session (basically, a class). The conference has an unusual format and remit. It is designed for high school students, their teachers, and interested community members. In a single busy day, participants hear two plenaries plus a presentation from a Holocaust survivor, and attend two breakout sessions from a selection of about six or seven.

I love being able to teach such a wide range of ages and experiences: a typical session will include as many retirees as 15-year-olds. The unusual format comes with its own challenges, of course: keeping the students from feeling intimidated by the adults; making sure the older participants really listen to the younger ones. By making participants work together to close read something, I seek to put everyone on the same footing and build a sense of community.

My session this year was called “Strangers in their Own Land: Jewish Self-Awareness in Holocaust Memoirs.” As I’d like eventually to turn it into a more formal piece of writing, I thought I’d transcribe my lesson plan here.

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Ruth Kluger

The handout that we used for our exercise was headed by two quotations; together, they offer a condensed version of what I was hoping the participants would learn:

I had found out, for myself and by myself, how things stood between us and the Nazis and had paid for knowledge with the coin of pain.

—Ruth Kluger

To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

—W. E. B. Du Bois

At first glance, Kluger—the Viennese-born survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt, and a death march—and Du Bois—the legendary African American sociologist and writer—might seem an unusual pairing. I argued that, on the contrary, they share the same way of thinking about the vicissitudes of being a member of a persecuted minority. For persecuted minorities, to know is to hurt, to exist is to be a problem.

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Nechama Tec

I began by explaining my title, which I adapted from an anecdote in Kluger’s brilliant memoir Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. In 1937—Kluger was about to turn six—her family summered in Italy. They had a car, rather unusual for the time, especially in Italy. Driving through the rural South, they pass another car with Austrian plates. The tourists wave to each other. Kluger is taken by the experience. She thinks, We wouldn’t have done that at home; we don’t even know each other. Writing many years later, she reflects:

I was enchanted by the discovery that strangers in a strange land greet each other because they are compatriots.

But this comforting nationalism, in which strangers become acquaintances by virtue of calling the same place home, would soon prove false and alienating. Kluger learned, along with the rest of Europe’s Jews, that being Jewish trumped being Austrian (or German or Polish or French or whatever). On her prewar holiday, Kluger enjoyed the experience of being a stranger in a strange land; just a year later, after the Anschluss, Kluger became a stranger in her own land.

To realize you are not at home in your home is shattering. The experience is powerfully ambivalent one, at once harmful and helpful.

To show how that might be the case, I referenced three Holocaust survivors: Kluger, Nechama Tec (born in Lublin in 1931 and hidden together with her family in a series of safe houses across Poland), and Sarah Kofman (born in Paris in 1934 to parents who had emigrated from Poland and who survived in hiding with a family friend she learned to call Mémé). Interestingly, all of these women later became academics: Kluger a professor of German, Tec of sociology, Kofman of philosophy.

(I’ll skip the potted bios, but I’m happy to say more in the comments if you’re interested.)

That brief orientation over, I divided the class into three and assigned each group one of the following passages, which we first read aloud together:

I found a small opening in the wall from which, unobserved, I could watch the girls at play. To me they seemed so content, so carefree, and I envied them their fun. Did they know that a war was on? At times, as I watched them, I too became engrossed in their games and almost forgot about the war. But the bell that called them back to class called me back to reality, and at such moments I became acutely aware of my loneliness. These small excursions made me feel, in the end, more miserable than ever. The girls in the boarding school were so near and yet so far. The wall that separated us was thick indeed, and eventually I could not bear to go near it.

—Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982/84)

(Before we read, I explained the context. The scene takes place in 1940 or 41. Tec and her family are living in hiding in a disused part of a factory formerly owned by Tec’s father. The factory abuts on a convent school, a source of fascinated longing for Tec.)

In 1940, when I was eight or nine, the local movie theatre showed Walt Disney’s Snow White. … I badly wanted to see this film, but since I was Jewish, I naturally wasn’t permitted to. I groused and bitched about this unfairness until finally my mother proposed that I should leave her alone and just go and forget about what was permitted and what wasn’t. … So of course I went, not only for the movie, but to prove myself. I bought the most expensive type of ticket, thinking that sitting in a loge would make me less noticeable, and thus I ended up next to the nineteen-year-old baker’s daughter from next door with her little siblings, enthusiastic Nazis one and all. … When the lights came on, I wanted to wait until the house had emptied out, but my enemy stood her ground and waited, too. … She spoke firmly and with conviction, in the manner of a member of the Bund deutscher Mädchen, the female branch of the Hitler Youth, to which she surely belonged. Hadn’t I seen the sign at the box office? (I nodded. What else could I do? It was a rhetorical question.) Didn’t I know what it meant? I could read, couldn’t I? It said “No Jews.” I had broken a law … If it happened again she would call the police. I was lucky that she was letting me off this once.

The story of Snow White can be reduced to one question: who is entitled to live in the king’s palace and who is the outsider. The baker’s daughter and I followed this formula. She, in her own house, the magic mirror of her racial purity before her eyes, and I, also at home here, a native, but without permission and at this moment expelled and exposed. Even though I despised the law that excluded me, I still felt ashamed to have been found out. For shame doesn’t arise from the shameful action, but from discovery and exposure.

—Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001)

(The passage offers its own context; but I reminded participants that by 1940 the situation for Jews in Vienna was increasingly dangerous. Kluger’s father, a doctor who had already been arrested for seeing Aryan patients, had just fled for France (from where he was later deported to the Baltics and murdered); Kluger’s own deportation was less than two years away.)

Knowingly or not, Mémé had brought off a tour de force: right under my mother’s nose, she’d managed to detach me from her. And also from Judaism. She had saved us, but she was not without anti-Semitic prejudices. She taught me that I had a Jewish nose and made me feel the little bump that was the sign of it. She also said, “Jewish food is bad for the health; the Jews crucified our savior, Jesus Christ; they are all stingy and love only money; they are very intelligent, no other people has as many geniuses in music and philosophy.” …

My mother suffered in silence: no news from my father [arrested and deported]; no means of visiting my brothers and sisters [in hiding in various places in the French countryside]; no power to prevent Mémé from transforming me, detaching me from herself and from Judaism. I had, it seemed, buried the entire past: I started loving rare steak cooked in butter and parsley. I didn’t think at all any more about my father, and I couldn’t pronounce a single word in Yiddish despite the fact that I could still understand the language of my childhood perfectly. Now I even dreaded the end of the war!

—Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994) Translated by Ann Smock (1996)

(The passage, set in 1942 or 43, describes how Mémé, the woman who saved Kluger, also abused her.)

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Sarah Kofman

Each group worked together to discuss the passages and answer two questions. The first was the same for everybody: Do we see self-awareness in this passage? If so, how?

The second was particular to the excerpt. I asked the Tec group to track the passage’s verbs. What can we learn about Tec’s experience when we pay attention to those verbs?

I asked the Kluger group to track the word “home” and its synonyms in this passage. What can we learn about Kluger’s experience when we pay attention to those words?

I asked the Kofman group to track two repeated words in the passage: “detach” and “nose.” What can we learn about Kofman’s experience when we pay attention to those words?

As the participants worked on their assignment, I wandered the room, eavesdropping and cajoling if the conversation seemed to falter. After seven or eight minutes, I brought the class back together and asked each group to report their findings (after reminding everyone that, since we’d all read the passages aloud, anyone could feel free to chime in at any time).

They did well! If you like, you can take a minute to think about how you’d answer the questions.

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IMG_1685

My annotations

Here are some of the things we noted:

Tec shows us both the appeal of fantasy and its cost. Spying on the children lucky enough to still be living ordinary lives takes her out of her situation, allows her to remember another life, even to almost forget the war. But the school bell that rings for them but not for her recalls her to reality. And that reminder is painful: she feels even worse than before, to the point where she eventually gives up her voyeurism. I’m always struck by “these small excursions”—such striking and unusual phrasing. What does an excursion imply? A vacation, a trip, a holiday, students will say. An adventure, but a safe one. Yes, I’ll add, an inconsequential one (a sense furthered by the adjective “small”). Tec is an explorer, but not, in the end, a successful one. She can’t keep going back to look at the childhood she no longer has. Excursion implies choice; yet this fantasy too fails her, just as the active verbs of the beginning of the passage (to find, to watch, to envy—things Tec herself chooses to do) are replaced by the experience of states of being (become engrossed, become acutely aware—things that happen to Tec).

The story of Kluger’s clandestine, dangerous trip to the movies (itself a salutary reminder for participants of how thoroughly Jews were shut out of ordinary life) centers on exposure. The “ex” prefix here, as in her use of “expelled” and Tec’s “excursion,” gestures to a desire, expressed at the very level of phonetics, to get out, to escape. Kluger tries to hide in plain sight, but the effort fails. Significantly, it is her next door neighbour who finds her out, showing us both how intimate persecution is, and how much, in this context at least, it functioned through an undoing of everything home should stand for. (To sell the point, Kluger uses many variations of the word home: I’m especially struck by her decision—not unidiomatic, but also not typical—to describe the theatre as a “house.”) Just as persecution makes home foreign, so too does it pervert justice. The baker’s daughter is right when she scolds Kluger for breaking a law: it’s easy for us to forget that Nazi persecution was legal. Kluger’s world has been turned upside down (her use of “naturally” is thus ironic); only she herself, her personality, her determination, offers the possibility of continuity. She is forbidden to go to the movies, so “of course” she goes. That’s just who she is. But the consequences of that persistence (nearly being turned over to the police) suggest that the idea of being true to one’s self is for Kluger as much a disabling fantasy as Tec’s spying.

Kofman similarly struggles to understand who she is. The figurative nose in her first sentence (and I’m cheating here, since we were working with a translation, and I don’t know the original) is echoed, then amplified by the literal one that Mémé so disparages. As a group we marveled, if I can put it that way, at Kofman’s anguished situation: out of a complicated mixture of gratitude, internalized self-hatred, and adolescent rebellion against a difficult mother, who, to be sure, is herself in an unbearably difficult situation she falls in love with a woman who turns her against herself. Mémé teaches Kofman to hate her own body and her own identity, by making her experience herself as others do. In that sense, she turns Kofman into someone who must live in bad faith. Yet, as we noted, the repetition of “detachment” inevitably carries with it a reminder of attachment: in describing what she has lost Kofman indirectly reminds us of what she once was. And we speculated that Kofman’s similarly indirect presentation of Mémé’s litany of anti-Semitic canards (where even the compliments are backhanded) implies a kind of resistance on her part to the older woman’s actions. It is unlikely, I suggested, that Mémé said all of these things at once, in a single sentence, as Kofman presents it. Which implies she has arranged the material: by piling the attacks on, she is inviting us to see them as ridiculous, contradictory, unhinged. But Kofman’s critique is retrospective. At the time, her position is utterly confused. Witness her (classically hysterical) aphasia—able to understand her mother/father tongue, but no longer able to speak it. Years later, Kofman eventually throws Mémé over, even refusing to go to her funeral. The “good mother” in the memoir—well worth reading—turns out to be neither of the two women she is caught between but rather Frenchness itself: the language & culture Kofman becomes so adept in, able to wield rather than submit to.

Having facilitated discussion, and with time drawing short, I emphasized that resistance and rejection are intertwined in these passages. Resistance takes the form of self-knowledge.

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W. E. B. Du Bois

To understand the implications of that double position, I had us turn to a thinker from a different tradition. I read aloud the last passage on the handout:

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him [sic] no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

Then I defined that consequential term double-consciousness: it’s what results when we have to define the self through the eyes of others. (I always use the example of Canadian identity, because it’s relatively low stakes and I can try to be funny with it: when Canadians think about what it means to be Canadian, as they often do, they usually begin, “Well, we’re not Americans…” In my experience, Americans seldom think about what it means to be American. They certainly don’t say, “Well, we’re not Canadians…” Which is because in geopolitical as well as cultural terms, America is dominant; they set the terms of understanding. The tape Americans use to measure themselves has been made to measure them.)

Minorities, Du Bois argues, typically define themselves in terms set by the majority. A significant result of this claim is that there is something valuable about that position of double-consciousness, for it is by definition a critical position. As Kluger explains in her memoir, her earliest reading material was anti-Semitic slogans, which gave her “an early opportunity to practice critical discrimination.”

The position of the majority or the dominant is properly speaking stupid, because it never has to translate its experience into terms given by someone else. It need never reflect. That is the definition of privilege.

But double-consciousness isn’t just enabling. To be in that position, to be a minority, specifically a persecuted minority like Jews in fascist Europe or Blacks at any time in American history, including the present, is to be at risk. Critical positions are precarious, dangerous, even intolerable—not just psychologically but also bodily. Think of Du Bois’s resonant, pained conclusion: to inhabit double-consciousness (to be at home in the idea of never being at home) is to feel “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Torn asunder. How can we read that and not think of lynching, or gassing, or any of the myriad ways minority bodies have been and continue to be made to suffer?

We were out of time. So I could only end by saying that the reason I had us to read Du Bois alongside Holocaust survivors was to think intersectionally. In terms of double-consciousness, minority experiences are more similar than different. And I wanted participants to think about the lesson for us today from these (to them) very old texts. To ask these questions: If we are a member of a minority, can we harness the power of double-consciousness and not be crushed? If we are a member of a majority, can we become self-aware enough not to harm, whether knowingly or unknowingly, minorities?

Can we be at home without being smug? Can we be self-aware without being strangers?

 

 

 

The Radetzky March Readalong

Caroline and Lizzy have organized a group reading of Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. The novel has three parts: they posed questions for each section. (Not something I’d seen done before for an online readalong. Such a good idea!) Rather than responding each week, I’ve chosen the questions that spoke to me the most and answered them in one shot.

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Welcome to the #germanlitmonth spring readalong of The Radetzky March.  What enticed you to read along with us?

Many years ago I spent part of a summer at my uncle’s vacation house, in a remote valley of northern Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. The house, a tiny thing of stone and wood built in the seventeenth century, was, as we’d say now, off the grid, even more so than most everything was in those days. A bakery van came by each morning, and once a week a grocery truck would come up from the main valley and stop in the little mountain villages. The villages were mostly empty then, filled with old people and some summer vacationers. I haven’t been there in decades: God only knows what they’re like now.

Along with my backpack, I had an old briefcase—I think it had been my grandfather’s—that I’d filled with books I was determined to read. Hard books: Proust, Broch, Faulkner, Malaparte. Of course, I didn’t read them all. The Broch was too hard, the Proust I didn’t get to until decades later. I did, however, read The Radetzky March. Did I like it? No idea. It left no big impression. I suspect I found it difficult. I didn’t know anything about the Hapsburg Empire then. And it’s slow. I remember the Malaparte much more vividly. Malaparte is not slow. Where Roth foresees the apocalypse, Malaparte is already in it. Which is perhaps to say that Roth is wasted on the young.

The older I get the more I’m interested in what we mean when we say we’ve read a book. If I’ve read it but can’t remember much of anything about it (a vague sense that, well, it’s about Hapsburgs, ends of empires, nostalgia), then have I really read it? I’m always caught between an insatiable drive to read everything and a wish to read books the way I read the books I teach—to have them seep into my soul, to be able to recall them fully, to have them totally at my fingertips.

When I heard about the readalong, I thought back to that summer, which, certainly with the glow of passing time, and from the position of middle-aged worries and responsibilities, stands out in a shimmer of pleasure. When I sat out in the sun on a stone terrace and read all day long, with breaks only for walks and coffees and wine in the evenings.

Here’s a chance, I thought, to pay homage to that past self, and to get a little closer to soaking up this book, assuming I still thought it warranted such close attention.

And I was curious what I would make of it now that I spend much of my time thinking about Eastern Europe (admittedly, the events twenty or thirty years later). Plus a year or two ago I read The Emperor’s Tomb, Roth’s sort-of sequel to Radetzky, and liked it very much.

That’s probably more than you wanted to know!

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?

A Penguin Modern Classic, first published in 1984. (The sticker on the back says I bought it Bei Morawa and paid 4,99 for it—I don’t know in what country and with what currency.) Eva Tucker translated it, revising an earlier translation by Geoffrey Dunlop. Part of me wanted to get the Michael Hofmann translation, because he handled Emperor so beautifully, and I thought he might offer easier, less syntactically difficult reading. But in the end I didn’t mind Tucker’s revision of Dunlop. A bit formal—Tolstoy and Zola are in the background—but that suits the book, and may in fact be an accurate reflection of the original.

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How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family.  Their founder had been ennobled following the battle of Solferino.  He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title.  Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

Compare Tucker:

The Trottas were not an old family. Their founder’s title had been conferred on him after the battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene and chose the name of his native village, Sipolje. Though fate elected him to perform an outstanding deed, he himself saw to it that his memory became obscured to posterity.

(As best I can tell, Hofmann follows Roth’s sentence length more closely; Tucker combines short sentences into longer ones by using conjunctions not present in the original.)

As to whether the opening is effective: absolutely. It gives us so much to think about.

We could start with the difference between “not an old family” and a young one, which, to me, suggests the book values continuity and tradition (interestingly, the English versions contrast Roth’s text: “Die Trottas waren ein junges Geschlecht”— I’ve no idea why Hofmann & Tucker made the change. Maybe because it would sound weird to say something like “The Trottas were a young lineage). But if we think this is going to be a story about upstarts, the next few sentences set us straight. In fact, the reference to Solferino, where French and Italian troops defeated the Austrians, already hints at failure. That’s followed by the information that the first von Trotta sought to undo the rise in station that accompanies ennoblement. Or at least, that he tried. (Tucker is more definitive than Hofmann.) Given that he’s fighting against fate, we might wonder whether this surprising attempt to fail—to avoid the spotlight, to fall in the world—will itself be a failure.

The other important element in this opening paragraph is the reference to the first von Trotta’s ethnic/national identity. Although very little will be made of that origin—none of the characters ever visit Sipolje—The Radetzky March is a book about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and as this fact becomes more evident the early reference to a minority identity—“He was a Slovene”—seems in retrospect especially telling. And all the more so because it’s not accurate. Or not in any meaningful sense. The first von Trotta shows no connection to or interest in his Slovene-ness. We learn that in the recent past his father—a vivid and delightful bit character who, after losing an eye fighting Bosnian smugglers, has been pensioned off as a caretaker of a palace about ten miles from Vienna—would address him in Slovene, even though his son can hardly speak it. But after Trotta becomes a “von” and is elevated to the rank of Captain (he takes a bullet intended for the Emperor: Solferino was one of the last battles in which heads of state fought), his father resorts to “the ordinary harsh German of army Slavs.”

Although the von Trottas identify themselves almost to the point of pathology with the Empire, this early reference to ethnic minorities, along with later ones to class unrest, unionization efforts, and strikebreaking, points to the fissures that will undo that Empire. In the opening pages, the Captain is shown writing up his weekly inspection of his regiment’s sentries: he “scribble[s] his bold, forceful None under the heading UNUSUAL INCIDENTS, thus denying even the remotest possibility of such occurrences.” The line is telling because, most of the time, nothing much happens in the book. But even the most seemingly serene status quo doesn’t just maintain itself. And the book shows first the fraying and then the destruction of a way of life that had seemed as unchanging as the entries in the regimental logbook.

In sum: not a flashy opening, but a telling one.

BTW do any other German speakers hear Trotta and think Trottel (idiot)?

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Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness.” What is the effect of this impartiality? (I changed this question a little.)

Put differently: if the book is about decline, does it judge that decline? At times, I compared the novel to Lawrence’s The Rainbow, another modernist novel about three generations of a family. Lawrence is pretty clear that the changes that happen to the family are bad. Or, at least, he regrets the way the second and third generations are forced to come to terms with history. They lose touch with a peasant, premodern, prelapsarian timelessness. Lawrence also changes his style rather dramatically from beginning to end: from an amazing King James Biblical richness to a much flatter description of modernity. Roth, by contrast, writes about the Captain, the District Commissioner, and Carl Joseph in the same way. His style remains consistent. And I’m unconvinced he really thinks that the third generation is more decadent, less vital, more helpless than the first one.

Maybe, then, the Captain’s crusade to return to obscurity is analogous to Freud’s description of what he termed “the death drive,” by which he meant not a suicidal longing, but rather the way each organism seeks to return to the nothingness from which it came. In this regard, maybe these generations are equally modern.

What does the old servant Jacques and his death stand for?

I was moved by Jacques death, especially his insistence on working even in his last hours. Similarly moving, though less consequential, is the effect of this perverse dedication on the district administrator (the Captain’s son).

In many ways Chojnicki is the opposite of Jacques. What did you think of him?

I think he’s great. He brings energy to every scene. I suspect Roth liked him. He’s almost but not quite cynical. He knows the Empire is coming to an end: he doesn’t look forward to it (after all, he stands to lose a lot), but he doesn’t mourn it either.

He reminded me of Proust’s Charlus (less louche—maybe it’s the baldness that made me think them alike—but also the change that comes over them during the war). That late scene when the District Commissioner visits the mad Chojnicki, invalided out from the front, is pretty intense. (It’s a nice touch to turn the femme fatale Frau von Taussig into a nurse: that shift in our sense of who a character is also feels Proustian.)

Chojnicki’s fate makes me think that he and Jacques are more similar than different. Duty to the Empire does them both in.

By the way, this isn’t the same Chojnicki as in The Emperor’s Tomb, right?

Were you surprised to find the last chapter of part 2 told from the point of view of Kaiser Franz Josef? How effective did you find it?

Yes, but it worked. I’ve written about this strategy before, in one of my posts on Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, where I quoted the bit in S/Z where Roland Barthes says realist fiction can only mention historical personages in passing, lest they risk absurdity. Maybe it is a function of how little I know about Franz Josef (merely that he lived to be very old, a doddering stand-in for his Empire: Roth doesn’t exactly disagree, but he embroiders on this outline, and I found the Emperor’s brief moments of decisiveness among his general fog quite touching), but to me he appeared as a fully realized character. And maybe Roth’s decision to include Franz Joseph’s POV is a sign that he isn’t writing a realist novel, but instead a modernist one.

There seems to be only one true and honest relationship in this novel—the friendship between district administrator von Trotta [the Captain’s son] and doctor Skowronnek. Would you agree? What did you think of their relationship?

I would. And I found it surprising and touching. Since women are basically absent from this novel—its most striking failure: the two or three female characters are clichés, and I’m unconvinced Roth is offering any kind of critique of, say, the limited possibilities for women in the Empire—intimacy must take place between men. The relationship between Von Trotta and Skowronnek’s also bridges a class barrier, making it even more telling, and unusual. I appreciated the delicacy of their regard for each other.

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What is the significance of the regimental party at Chojnicki’s country house?

The greatest scene in this great novel. So portentous and symbolic—a great storm breaks weeks of sultry, oppressive heat, throwing the party into disarray, but also egging it on to greater, more debauched heights, a hectic state that only becomes more intense when the news arrives that the heir to the throne has been shot. Half of the guests dance in drunken, ignorant abandon; the other half work themselves into nationalistic frenzies. You can see the Empire splintering; you can admire/pity/condemn the ignorance of those who waltz along the abyss.

It’s all so obvious; it shouldn’t work at all. But it does. (Like the later references to the wild geese who migrate south earlier than ever before that summer: the natural world, like the empire that pretends to be similar unchanging, is out of kilter. We get it! And yet those geese are great.) How? Why? Maybe because Roth has a way of being both ironic and sincere. Take the party scene: it’s knowing (look at the decadent empire!) but not too knowing (the emotions are big, heartfelt, I was totally captivated).

Chapter 21 takes us to the Eastern front.  What do you think about the way Roth depicts the conflict? How do you feel about the manner of Carl Joseph’s [the son of the district administrator: the third of the three von Trotta generations] death?

Pleasingly oblique. Carl Joseph is shot by a sniper while filling up water buckets for his men. The difference between this death and the near-death of his grandfather at Solferino is clear. One saves the Emperor, one dies for his men, doing a dangerous but mundane job. The novel is obvious about that difference—“Lieutenant Trotta died, not with sword in hand but with two buckets of water”—but I didn’t find that obviousness offputting or heavy-handed. (Roth is not Mann.)

The Radetzky March has been described as a nostalgic novel for a lost empire.  Is nostalgic the adjective you’d use?

It’s so tempting, but I’m suspicious. Too easy, surely. See what I wrote above about decline. Characters talk about it all the time, worry over its apparent inevitability, but the book doesn’t necessarily agree. Not that the present is better (by “present” I mean the time of WWI—by the time Roth wrote the book, that already seemed like the distant past) . Roth isn’t a liberal, or a socialist. There’s no belief in progress here. But neither is he conservative, reactionary. (Well, except maybe when Dr. Skowronnek and the District Commissioner bond over the ridiculous of that new fad, meat-eating contests. They’re not wrong, though.) He’s dispassionate, but not in that Olympian way that bugs me about Flaubert and some of Nabokov. Roth is warm, accepting, enlightened. I suspect he’s talking about himself when he says of Skowronnek: “He liked people as much as he despised them.”

What struck you the most in this novel, what do you like or dislike the most?

I dislike its lack of interest in women, as I said before.

I like its slow burn. So much of the novel consists of people doing the things they always do (the descriptions of the District Commissioner’s Sunday meals are mouth-watering, especially those cherry dumplings), and being bored and irritated but also fiercely insistent on that repetition.

And there are some lovely, lyrical passages, whether a deft turn of phrase (a man exhales to reveal “a surprisingly powerful set of teeth, pale-yellow teeth, a strong protective fence guarding his words”) or an indelible set piece. I was especially taken with the Emperor’s encounter with a Jewish delegation. Or this snippet, coming just after Chojnicki tells Trotta war has been declared:

Never, it seemed to Trotta, had nature been so peaceful. At this hour you could look straight into the sun as, visibly, it sank westward. A violent wind came to receive it, rippled the small white clouds in the sky and the wheatstalks on the ground, caressed the scarlet face of the poppies. A blue shadow drifted across the green meadows. Toward the east the little wood disappeared in deep violet. Stepaniuk’s low house, where he lived, gleamed white at the edge of the wood, its windows burnished with evening sunlight. The crickets increased their chirping. The wind carried their voices into the distance; there was silence and the fragrance of the earth.

Would you reread The Radetzky March?

Absolutely. I want to read so many other things, so I’ve no idea whether I will. Probably not anytime soon. But I’m so glad to have read it a second time, and grateful to Caroline & Lizzy for providing the incentive.

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Secretly Canadian

Dr. Dionne Jackson, head of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at Hendrix College, where I teach, asked me to give a lunchtime talk in their monthly series on identity. I chose to write about being a Canadian in the US. Here’s a slightly cleaned-up version. It’s stilted–half speech, half notes. I ad-libbed somewhat; I think it sounded better than it reads. But I offer it here in case anyone’s interested, along with my powerpoint slides.
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I chose this title as a joke, because if you know anything about me you probably know that I’m Canadian. It’s not exactly something I hide. Many people at Hendrix have probably heard more than enough from me about Canadian awesomeness.

But I chose it for other reasons too.

One reason is the suggestion that someone—maybe some American— in their heart of hearts might wish to be Canadian. They are secretly Canadian. Of course, a Canadian would say that. Despite our irritating sense of superiority, Canadians have a total inferiority complex in regards to the US. All we want is to be acknowledged by you—and you don’t even know that we exist! (Except for weather—all those cold fronts coming down from Canada.)

Another reason is the suggestion that one could practice one’s Canadian-ness secretly. This is often the experience of Canadians abroad, especially in the US. We can pass, for the most part. Even though people make fun of me when I say “about.”

I like this idea of a kind of stealth existence. It feels subversive.

Yet it’s not enough to just hide out—at least not for me, and, I suspect, for many Canadians. Otherwise how can you can explain Canadians’ inescapable need to point out famous Canadians. (Seth Rogen… Canadian. Leonard Cohen… Canadian. Joni Mitchell… Canadian. Ellen Page… Canadian. Feist… Canadian.)

[Jews do this too BTW. So imagine how bad Canadian Jews are! (Drake!)]

Canadians even do this weird pointing-out-asking-for-affirmation thing when Americans aren’t listening. I remember when I was a kid every time the space shuttle was launched [explain space shuttle to students], the news back home would say, “The Space Shuttle Endeavour, with its Canadian-built Canadarm, launched from Cape Canaveral this morning…”

Today I’m going to say more about this paradoxical hiding in plain sight—this sense of being secretive, of being hidden, of being overlooked, all while simultaneously wanting to be acknowledged—and how it’s affected my own life.

Here for example is a well-known New Yorker cartoon from 2001:

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The implication here is that the guy isn’t Canadian. He’s probably American. He is the dominant against which the other he is faced with seems different, though, reassuringly, not too different: familiar yet somehow strange. In this sense, Canadians are queer; Americans are straight.

Notice, though, that the guy seems only mildly, even politely interested. Maybe a little bemused. Nothing in his phrasing suggests that he is obsessed with the woman’s Canadian identity.

What about her? What’s she thinking? Who knows. But if she is anything like the Canadians I grew up with, during the 70s and 80s, then she cares a lot. Then (and still to some extent now) Canadians spent a lot of time thinking about their identity. What did it mean to be Canadian? On the radio, in the newspaper: you’d here this question all the time.

This was a time when the country was threatened by Quebec separatism. There was the very real possibility the country could break up, even no longer exist. My sense is that we are lot less anxious as a nation than we used to be, but it is striking to me that Americans never spend any time worrying about what it is to be American. They just know. Rich, free, morally good. (White Americans anyway.)

You have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have peace, order, and good government.

In 1972, the great Canadian radio host Peter Gzowski organized a little competition. He was thinking about the phrase “As American as apple pie” (my crack online research reveals the phrase was apparently already in use in 1860s but gained traction during and shortly after WWII – “as American as motherhood and apple pie—at some point motherhood dropped out).

Anyway, Gzowski wondered what the Canadian version would be. What is the quintessential Canadian simile? So he asked listeners to complete the phrase. As Canadian as…

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What do you think the winning entry was?

[I canvassed the audience—various answers were mooted: “as poutine,” “as maple syrup,” “winter,” “hockey.”]

Nope, nope, nope. All plausible answers, but the actual answer is much stranger, much more delightful. The winner was: “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances

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Heather Scott was a 17-year-old student at the time. I could not find a photo of her; the image is a reproduction of a painting by the great Quebecois artist Jean Paul Lemieux.

[I counted on laughter; fortunately, there was laughter.]

Why is this funny?

  • Modesty, almost hapless
  • Dayeinu, good enough
  • passive aggressive?

[These were my ideas. The audience had better ones: the suggestion that one might have to work (perhaps quite hard) to be Canadian; the sense that being Canadian in some full sense is impossible; the sense that circumstances might work against being Canadian.]

1972 happens to be the year I was born: I am as Canadian as possible under the circumstances.

This is the kind of avowal I can get behind. An ironic patriotism. The patriotism of peacekeeping.

When I was growing the US was always equated with brashness, vulgarity, and aggression.

(All Canadians are familiar with some marginal American town/city where the US TV channels came from: in my case, it was Spokane, WA and Coeur d’Alene, ID. I can still probably tell you the names of the used-car dealerships in both those places in the mid-80s. Always shouting—that was my sense of American TV as a kid. Why are they always shouting?)

I’m not sure Americans know how many parts of the world perceive their flag as a sign of aggression, even warmongering. That’s how it felt in my childhood, and it took me many years of living in the US to get over that feeling.

[Driving from Canada to Ithaca, NY for grad school—on a trip in summer to find an apartment—every little upstate NY town littered with flags. I was freaking out. Later learned it was Flag Day…]

When Canadians ask who they are, their first answer is always, Well we’re not American.

You are so much bigger than us, you set the terms of our own self-understanding.

I’m always reminded of the famous comparison offered by former PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

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So snarky: that “beast”! He said this at the Washington Press Club!

In the metaphor, you are blissfully—though also apparently quite restlessly—asleep. Ignorant of us. But we are highly aware of you.

The Canadian mice are troubled by the elephant, but they also kind of love it.

For a certain generation of Canadians making it in the US was the ultimate goal. Again, I think that’s changing now. But I think it’s true for my generation. Or at least for me. When I applied for PhD programs in the late 1990s I really wanted to go to the US. I did not love the US. In fact, I kind of scorned it. But I felt that was where the best programs were. The best libraries. The most famous faculty. If I could make it there I could make it anywhere.

And I did come to the US. It was 20 years ago this year. August 20, 1999. I remember the date vividly because it is on all my immigration documents. I need to know it, not to celebrate anniversaries, but to keep the authorities happy.

And I got my education, and I met my amazing wife, and I got this job, and my wife and I had our daughter. I have wonderful American in-laws and they have taught me to love baseball. In seven more years, I’ll have lived as long in the US as in Canada.

It’s quite possible I’ll spend the rest of my life here.

But I’m still not a citizen, even though I’ve been eligible to become one for years.

Even with the election of Trump, when so many people in this country, immigrants and would-be immigrants especially, became more vulnerable, and as my wife and in-laws started pressing me more and more to get citizenship, I’ve kept dragging my heels. (I’ve been “getting to it” for almost a decade.)

(I recognize I am much safer than most immigrants: white male, Canadian, have Green Card, could stay on it forever, but…)

Friends sometimes ask me, more or less nicely: What’s my problem? Why haven’t you got citizenship yet? Don’t you want to vote?

The answer, I must confess, is that deep down I really don’t want to become American, even symbolically.

Every year my family spends part of the summer in Canada, and we always ask ourselves, Why don’t we live here?

I miss:

  • Sidewalks
  • Public transportation
  • Health care not tied to job
  • Politics not equal to sports—two party system turns everything into a horse race
  • Gun laws
  • Most of all, sense of public space/common good—that government can do things for you, not just ruin your life

Of course, there are wonderful things about the US:

  • Generosity
  • Can-do-spirit
  • Liberal arts colleges—America’s great gift to civilization

And terrible things about Canada:

  • Parochial
  • Chilly (I mean the people, not the weather: “old” WASP Canada)
  • Shameful destruction of indigenous communities
  • Passive aggressive
  • Smug

But my real stumbling block is internal. It has to do with me, with who I am.

As I was preparing for this talk, I realized I am governed by twin fears:

  • Fear of joining (have to take a side, stand out, which in my family = be a spectacle)
  • Fear of being lonely (not quite same as alone, but similar)

It’s almost physically painful for me to join in a group movement: I am fundamentally a-political. Partly because I am deeply introverted. And partly because I am scared of rejection. Having to ask for what I want is very hard for me. I’d rather people ask me to join than me having to ask them.

At the same time, I hate to be left out, I want to know the gossip, I have FOMO. Warhol anecdote: I don’t want to go to any parties; I just want to see what happens at all of them.

So in the end I think my situation—being a resident alien—is the response I’ve found to these competing imperatives. It suits me to be neither here nor there. Were I ever to move back home (and no one has ever shown signs of wanting to hire me…), I would probably quickly become frustrated. As it is, by being the Canadian in the US, I can assert my difference, but quietly. And I don’t have to take the risk of putting myself out there.

I ask myself: is this a critical position, a way to use the power of the minority position? Or is it paralysis, a kind of fence-sitting?

As I was writing this talk realized that maybe the reason I love Nella Larsen’s Passing so much is because that’s what my current situation allows me to do: to pass, to hide in plain sight, to be familiar yet strange.

And yet I am always avowing that hiding. Hiding itself is not enough for me. Of course, to be able to do so is a sign of privilege. Most of time passing happens, as it does in Larsen’s novel, for much more desperate motives.

And increasingly I think this privilege is something to give up. I love being betwixt and between. But I worry that maybe it is cowardly in some fashion.

What, I wonder, would it mean for me to be as American as possible under the circumstances?

July 2018 Vacation Reading

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The Three Sisters, Canmore, AB, July 2018 Photo: Brett Buchanan

 

Spent much of July in Canada, lucky me, visiting friends in New Brunswick and family in Alberta. Did a lot of hiking, caught up on some television, avoided news as much as possible, enjoyed the time with my wife and daughter, and also got in a fair amount of reading.

As usual I didn’t read very many of the things I thought I would. The need to take it easy and follow the drifts of serendipity was more overpowering than ever this year. It was a joy to read so haphazardly.

Here are some capsule thoughts on the stuff I read.

Rachel Cusk, Outline (2014)

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Late to this party, but now that I’m here, I’m staying for the whole thing. (Clumsy way of saying I will read the other two books in the trilogy, and then look into Cusk’s backlist–if anyone has suggestions about where to go first–her fiction? her nonfiction?–I’d like to know.) I’m not as over the moon about what Cusk is doing as some readers seem to have been. (I’m unconvinced this is the novel’s salvation, for example, mostly because I don’t think it needs saving.) But I found Outline engrossing and satisfying. I think it would repay re-reading more than most books. A part of me wonders if the book isn’t too perfectly devised to be interpreted in a particular way (as if it were designed for the classroom). But another part of me thinks that Cusk is likely ahead of me and has written her book in this way knowingly, to make a point about what kind of book our literary culture considers important. (I am not exactly sure what that point is, though.) I really like Cusk’s use of indirect narration–the only way, though an important one, in which she resembles Sebald, whom I suspect she is often compared to. She’s got a handle there on something significant about how we tell stories now; I look forward to thinking about this more as I read the follow-up books.

Dorothy B. Hughes, The Expendable Man (1963)

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The best book I read in July, hell, one of the best of the year. I can’t say much about it because Hughes delivers an important surprise about a quarter of the way through that shifts ours understanding of the whole thing, in a way that effectively provokes us to examine our expectations. That might sound like a trick or a gimmick, but it is totally not. Basically, all you need to know is that this is a great noir set in the American southwest. It would have been so easy for Hughes to have written this in first person. Her choice to use third makes it even more compelling. The rare thriller that demands to be re-read. (I just read another of her books and hope to write more about it soon.)

Edmund Crispin, The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944)

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The only dud of the bunch. I was excited to find reissues of Crispin’s mysteries while browsing in a bookstore, but was disappointed with my choice, which I selected because it was published before any of the others sitting on the shelf. I’m guessing it’s not the first in the series, because the detective, an apparently brilliant and maddeningly insouciant Oxford don named Gervase Fen, isn’t given anything like an ordinary introduction; it’s as though we’re already supposed to know all about him. [I just looked this up, and this book is the first of the series: another strike against it!] I don’t know if amateur and professional theater companies were as big a part of actual life in early to mid 20th Century Britain as they are in crime fiction of the period, but I find theatre stories a particularly tedious sub-genre, and as Gilded Fly involves a production so far from the West End it premieres in Oxford, I’m hardly the ideal reader of the book. I finished it–mostly because it is so short–but unless someone mounts a convincing defense of the series (and promises later ones get much better) I won’t be reading any more.

Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk (2017)

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An excellent novel by a writer who clearly knew what she was about, especially when it comes to preserving the strangeness of the past. A shame she died last year (at only 64), not long after publishing this book. Birdcage Walk is set in and around Bristol in the 1790s. It’s good with ideas–the joys and disillusionment the Revolution brings to progressive thinkers, including the protagonist’s mother, as best I can tell a sort of Mary Wollstonecraft type (though the hero is no Mary Shelley, except in being abused by men); the similarities and differences between those who build with their hands and those who create with their minds–but even better with things: it’s filled with vivid scenes of, for example, a difficult labour, the burying of a corpse, and a headlong boat ride, racing first with then against the tide. Dunmore reminds me of Penelope Fitzgerald (some of the highest praise I can offer). There’s nothing here quite as extraordinary as the wash day in The Blue Flower or the break-up of ice in The Beginning of Spring, but Dunmore’s book is definitely in that league. Although there won’t be any new books from Dunmore, she has a long and enticing backlist. I plan to start with The Siege, about the siege of Leningrad, but if anyone has other suggestions, I’m all ears.

Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves (2017)

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Terrific Indigenous YA from Canada. In the dystopian world of this novel–set in Northern Ontario about forty years from now–not only has climate change made much of the world uninhabitable, but, almost as bad, something has made people unable to dream. (No doubt it has something with their inability to contrive a way of living in the world that doesn’t destroy it, but fortunately Dimaline doesn’t labour over an explanation.) If you can’t dream you go crazy, so when it’s discovered that Indigenous people have been spared the affliction it’s not long before they are being hunted and placed into facilities where the bone marrow that somehow protects them can be extracted. There are obvious resonances to the residential schools that devastated Indigenous culture in Canada, but again, Dimaline underplays the connection. A friend told me she didn’t care for the book because she thought it was so poorly written, and I agree that Dimaline (in what I believe is her first novel) too often overloads her sentences with metaphor. For example, here’s her narrator, a teenage boy named Frenchie, when he stumbles across a miraculously pristine lake: “I heard capture and release and a high whine over something that echoed off the trees growing downwards towards the brook like pious monks in all manner of fancy dress, voluminous green silks peeking out of their austere brown habits.” I’m willing to believe, just about, that the boy would make such a comparison, but what is the comparison about, exactly? The end of the sentence says that trees look like monks, but the beginning is about sound, and I find it confusing that so much description should be appended to what isn’t even the sentence’s subject. But in the end, I am both a sucker for dystopian stories (which more and more are just slight exaggerations of reality) and for the balance between hopefulness and hopelessness on which the book pivots. Bottom line: I stayed up late to finish, reading as avidly as I did as a child.

Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015)

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This was Fuller’s first novel, and her new one (her third, I believe) is getting a lot of good buzz. I’m certainly going to read it, because this was excellent. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, and I don’t think the frame story is as engaging as the main one. (Fuller just ran out of steam, I think, but that’s okay because I’d rather the book was 300 pages that left me wanting more than 450 pages that made me want less.) In the mid-1970s, while her mother, a concert pianist, is on tour in Europe, eight-year-old Peggy is taken on vacation by her father, a survivalist and, it turns out, a crackpot (though that’s probably a redundancy). The vacation turns out to be a nine-year odyssey in a remote valley in Bavaria, where the two live without any human contact. The father convinces his daughter that the rest of the world has been destroyed and that they have only each other to rely on. (The frame story hints at the narrator’s difficulty in re-entering the ordinary world.) Fuller’s characterization, especially of the father, is careful and convincing. We see his monstrousness, his selfishness, but we also see his capability and his ability for joy. (Mostly, though, we see the former.) Fuller handles the denouement deftly, too: it’s never clear whether Peggy escapes alone or with help. The best thing of all, though, are Fuller’s descriptions of what the two do to survive: what they eat, how they collect and catch it, how they make do with what they have, and how much their “success” is twinned with delusive failure. An unspectacular but totally captivating novel.

Lee Child, Without Fail (2002)

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A long time ago I read the first Reacher novel in the hopes of seeing what all the fuss was about, but that wasn’t a good idea, since Child hadn’t yet perfected his style. A friend gave me this installment, from much later in the series (though I think the point is they aren’t a series, each book is, I suspect, as self-contained as Reacher is supposed to be), and I plucked it off the shelf when I needed pure distraction. It was the perfect vacation read: totally undemanding and suspenseful. Child writes too much (though he’s never wordy and his syntax is as simple as possible), but the book didn’t feel padded the way a lot of thrillers do. Someone is trying to assassinate the Vice President-elect and the head of his security detail at the Secret Service calls in Reacher to help. Plenty of action, plenty of suspense, and just the right amount of neepery re: protection details. I’m not a card-carrying fan-club member just yet but I will read more for sure. My main takeaway so far, though: that Reacher, not a big eater.

Andrew Taylor–The Ashes of London (2016)

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Another good vacation book, this one historical fiction set in the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire of London composed of two parallel stories that of course intertwine, but mostly pretty glancingly, so the thing doesn’t feel too contrived. Plenty of historical figures have cameos, including Christopher Wren and even Charles II, and the criticisms Roland Barthes made of this technique about 40 years ago probably apply, but I know so little about Restoration England that it didn’t bother me too much. It’s both interesting and a liability that one of the protagonists is almost but not quite a detective–such a thing didn’t exist in the way we know it today, and Taylor, who is as pleasantly workmanlike a writer as one could wish in such a book (I mean that as a compliment: he’s a good writer, but he’s not trying to be something he’s not, Hilary Mantel, say), makes good use of the character’s in-between status as someone near but not of court life to take us all over London. There’s already a sequel, and I’ll read it for sure. Not a book to change anyone’s life, but totally enjoyable. Just like a vacation, maybe?

And you? What have you been reading this summer?

On Counterpoint in the Classroom

It often happens that I ask students to work together in pairs or small groups for a few minutes during class. We usually do “think-pair-share”: students write on a prompt for a few minutes, they debrief with a partner, and then, once the class as a whole has reconvened, they share what they learned from talking with their partner. I have the pairs work together for two or three minutes, sometimes five, depending on how engaged they seem.

Sometimes I prepare a series of more involved questions about the day’s text, divide the class into five or six groups, and assign each of them a question, telling them that they will share their response with the group as a whole. In this case they spend longer together, at least five minutes, maybe ten.

This time, when the students are busily working together, is what I want to talk about today.

I find such moments equally satisfying and unsettling. They have a particular texture that, I suspect, is very different for me than for the students. What is happening at such moments? When they are bent over their writing or chatting with a classmate, what am I doing? Am I teaching?

I remember once walking down the hallway of one of the busiest buildings on campus. It was the middle of a class period, and as I passed six or seven classrooms I heard over and over the voices of professors. Some of these classes were lectures, some were discussions, some, no doubt, a hybrid. But regardless of type I didn’t hear a lot of students talking. I’m always conscious that I too am the person who talks the most in my classes. There are good reasons for this (I know more than my students do about most of the things I teach). I’d say I talk more now than I did when I started, for reasons that are both good (I’m more confident; I’ve perfected a spiel that works) and bad (I’ve gotten lazier; it’s easier to talk than to engage in other ways). But my ideal is still a class in which students talk at least as much and preferably more than I do. (I still remember a session on Virginia Woolf many years ago when I only spoke a single sentence for the first hour of class. It was amazing.)

Small-group work has many benefits. It allows people who are shy about speaking in front of the whole class to contribute to class conversation. It helps the ones who need a little time to formulate an answer and who otherwise might be drowned out by students who find it easy to give immediate answers to my questions. And it integrates writing with talking—important because for most people writing is the best way to improve thinking.

When students talk with each other, they wake up, they feed off the changed atmosphere, they gulp down the oxygen that comes into the room. At least, they do when things are going well. Like most teachers, I’ll use impromptu small group work if the atmosphere is particularly leaden (if it’s a particularly rainy or gloomy day I’ll usually come prepared with a small group exercise). Sometimes it doesn’t shake things up. Who knows why. Could be the time of the semester, the day of the week, the weather outside and inside, the intransigence or shyness or fearfulness of a particular group dynamic.

But mostly it works. Things always start quietly; students are shy about breaking the silence. They begin by murmuring, but as they warm to the task they get louder. Soon there is a pleasant hubbub, almost a roar. That’s what I love best. I can feel the class loosening up. There’s more laughter, a kind of ease comes into the room.

I’m not an idiot: I know students aren’t always talking about the thing I asked them to talk about. (Though knowing I might ask them to summarize the conversation usually keeps them honest.) That’s not even the worst thing in the world. If I hear a few groups talking about their weekends or a chemistry exam they just took then I know—though the presence of longer pauses has usually already clued me in—that it’s time to bring them back together as a class. If one group finishes their task too quickly, I’ll go over and check in, ask someone to tell me what they’ve been talking about, prod them to think further, maybe give them another question to think about.

But mostly I stay out of their conversations. Instead I walk, and I listen. Unless I’m teaching a seminar where we can all fit around a table, I always move around the room a lot. Partly because I am nervous and fidgety, but also because I think it keeps them engaged, a little off-balance, in a good way. When I’m asking questions and expanding on their responses—in other words, when I’ve conducting the discussions that make up 90% of my class time—I want to be close to the students: looking in their faces to see what’s happening (are they getting what I’m saying, do they seem confused or bored?) and bringing my presence to different parts of the room. But when they’re doing group work I want to be out of their way. So I’ll wander the perimeter of the room, maybe looking at what’s hanging on the walls (maps of foreign countries, posters listing tutoring times, cheap reproductions of art works hung by God knows who God knows when) or, better still, out the window, if I can. I’ll cast myself outside the space of the classroom, watching the trees rustle in the wind or people hurrying or sauntering along the campus’s walkways or the groundskeepers with their inevitable leaf-blowers. Part of me will be out there, in that space where I don’t have to perform, where no one needs to have something to say about the day’s text. But part of me will be inside the room, roaming.

But this walking is much less important than listening. I’ve always liked to eavesdrop—as a kid I rode the bus a lot, especially when I got to be a teenager, since I took the city bus to school and to work; that’s where I honed my skills of listening in on people’s lives—and these small group sessions are a chance for me to get a (more or less unfiltered) sense of what students are thinking. As I’m wandering the room I’m getting bits and pieces of conversations; I’ll listen for ideas that are repeated from group to group, or for passages that particular groups seize upon. When I can I’ll reference these ideas in our discussions, whether overtly (“I noticed many of you were drawn to the scene at the swimming pool”) or covertly, as a way to structure the rest of the day’s conversation. Eavesdropping is a good way for me to get a handle on misconceptions or just generally take the temperature of the class’s familiarity with the day’s text (if people haven’t read it the small group conversation will be halting; it’s always a tell when students are desperately scanning the pages in the hopes of figuring out what the hell the thing’s about).

As the voices of the students rise and fall, as I make my way around the room, casting an eye outside it and an ear within it, I’ll find myself feeling calmer, even soothed. I’m getting a little break: for a few minutes I don’t have to be the one doing the heavy lifting of making something (a meaningful conversation) out of a room-full of people with their books. I don’t have to worry about time. (When class is going well, time flies by; when it’s not, it’s an enemy, a leaden lump I am forced to try to mould.) And I’m always heartened by the surge of the students’ voices: it makes me feel that something is being achieved in this room—paradoxically, it’s when the class splits up that I am mostly likely to feel the group working together—to feel that it is, in fact, a group, rather than a bunch of individuals who happen to occupy the same space at the same time.

At such times I often recall a scene from the Canadian director François Girard’s film 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993). Canadians of a certain disposition and generation probably know it, but I’m not sure it ever got much traction anywhere else. The film mixes documentary footage and interviews with people who knew Gould and adds re-enactments of important moments in his life. In these, Colm Feore plays Gould, presenting him as gentle and sweet and wise but also strange and demanding and prey to various compulsions, panics, and paranoias. (Much, it seems, like the real Gould.) It’s a good film, and worth your time, regardless of how much you know or care about Gould.

One of the vignettes is called Truck Stop:

As he waits for his eggs and orange juice, Gould, in sun glasses, black beret and wool overcoat, dials into the various conversations around him: a man tells a story about picking up a hitchhiker, a story that seems as though it will be salacious and dispiriting but swerves into a different register altogether; a waitress breaks off her affair with a regular, a long-distance trucker; two men talk sports (the woefulness of the Leafs a topic of almost perennial relevance). We see Gould marking time on his fingers, as if the conversations were a composition by Bach. Girard overlays the different conversations–we’re hearing all the stories at once–but, because he brings up first one and then another, we concentrate on different bits of the general hubbub at different times. This diner fugue is book-ended by Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” which plays on the radio both in Gould’s car and in the restaurant: a more simple musical form, but no less appealing, and important, for that.

Wandering my classroom, I fancy myself as Gould, dialing into first this snippet and then that, but weaving them together into a pedagogical counterpoint that offers an image of what I hope the class a whole will be: a set of independent voices that are nonetheless harmonically interdependent. (Am I understanding “counterpoint” correctly? Help me, musical people.)

At the best of these moments, I feel more than satisfied. I feel exultant. But I’m also uncertain, beset by questions. What exactly am I doing just now? Am I teaching or have I abdicated my responsibilities? Shouldn’t I be taking control and running the show? Similarly, I wonder about Gould’s relationship to the diner’s patrons. He’s with the people but he’d not of them. We get a sense of that distance when the waitress, excitedly, a little flushed, asks “Mr. Gould” if he wants his usual. Is Gould slumming? What is his role here, anyway? Is he composer? Performer? Conductor? Maker of found art? Is he responding to what he finds? Or is he, out of his genius, making something out of nothing, music out of noise? Do the conversations mean anything without his assessing ear?

I’m always worried I’ll let the group exercise go on too long. My worry is in part pedagogical: I don’t want the energy to peter out; I don’t want students to lose focus. But in part it’s more obscure, more personal: am I doing my job if I’m not taking a more active role? Of course, I set the task, I arranged the groups, I’m keeping an ear out for who is staying on task, and I’m the one who will turn this moment into what with luck will be a productive conversation about the text. So I’m doing a lot. Am I being an artist of sorts—is that the best way to describe a good teacher? Or am I imposing order and structure and form on something that might, admittedly, be more chaotic but maybe more valuable, more organic without me? Worse, am I using these exercises as a kind of distraction, whether for myself or for the students or for us all? After all, Clark’s “Downtown,” which is just as important to Girard’s scene as the inaudible Bach that underlies it, is a song about distraction, presented not only as a way to help us get outside ourselves but also, more troublingly, as a way to let us hide from ourselves. “You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” sings Clark on the tinny radio. Is that a good thing or not?

Sometimes in these moments that now don’t seem quite as peaceful, these moments when I’m watching and listening and the students are working, I’ll fixate on the close-up of Gould’s fingers and I’ll feel my own twitching. What are those fingers doing? What kinds of cares are they forgetting?