Work vs. work

Untitled-writerOutside Academia: The Writer…

 

Lately, I have felt overly-occupied with my so-called day job. The work I do at the college is personally rewarding and pays my bills; I love the challenges it offers and the people with whom I work, but I am not what one would term career-driven. Even though I am employed by a university, and even though I teach (just one class a semester), in many ways–as far as scholarship, research, and poetry go–I remain “outside academia.” An interesting paradox. But if I over-extend at my office, I find less to say at my writing desk at home.

Poets Mary Oliver and Kay Ryan also spent most of their careers working at colleges without climbing the spiral stairway of academia’s ivory tower. Well-received, excellent writers–and Oliver even sells quite well for a poet–they aren’t “academics.” It is heartening to know that such poetry luminaries are, like me, not academics. I often wonder how they managed to balance teaching with writing poetry.

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What I do “at work” where I earn a salary, and what I do when I “work” on poetry, seem quite separate to me, and I question whether one informs the other. I feel that being a poet does influence, though subtly, the way I approach teaching and tutoring. (It does not seem to have any influence on the way I do record-keeping, spreadsheets, or paperwork.)

By contrast, my day job at the college seems not to have much sway over my poetry; I write prose about teaching and tutoring, but my career work does not often appear as topic or substance in my poems. I notice, too, that Oliver and Ryan do not often write poems about their day jobs (both of them have retired by now–but still). In fact, I would venture that the way my day job affects my poetry is mostly as a time and energy drain.

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I have challenged myself to write at least two poems a month that in some respect relate to my work with students. That prompt forces me to remember that I am not two separate beings, one at the college desk and one, pen in hand, on the back porch at home. I remain my whole self, and I place my whole self into both endeavors. I can work with that.

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Clouds & trees

One benefit to living where I do is the way the sky looks in early autumn. Another is the brilliancy of leaves as they change color.

This time of year, even my commute to and from work offers moments of beauty. There are sunrises as I get ready for work, sunsets as I drive home each evening. The skies have been so glorious lately that a friend of mine posts photos on his social media account every day. Autumn arrives, and I wish I were a painter.

Cloud textures: yesterday morning, stippled so densely I could easily imagine ice crystals clustering together in the atmosphere a thousand feet above me. Bouncy puffs, striations, streaks. Today, a more consistent palette of repeated half-rounds. A stream of grey, white, and slate blue overhead, highlighted with thin bands of yellow.

Meanwhile, the trees–first the hickories going golden, then other tints. Today, I noticed the scarlet of a tupelo aflame at the edge of a field and the first big sugar maple shifting to orange. Many of the smaller ornamental trees take on burgundy hues. I can’t describe these landscapes in words! I want words to be pigments. I feel stalled. Maybe I am just making excuses for why I have not been writing poetry lately–(I don’t want to confess to writer’s block, as obviously I am writing!)

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Here’s a nice video from Slate that speculates, based on recent science, about why there are more red colors in North American trees than in European trees. Click here!

 

Focus

On what do I focus when I write a poem?

This question has occurred to me before, usually under the guise of someone asking the ever-vague “What inspires you to write?” Focus differs from inspiration. For me, focus seems to derive from observation and is a process of discovering meaning.

Focus helps me understand what it is I’m experiencing and to decide how to express it. I focus when I need to make decisions; in the case of writing a poem, the decision might be one of craft approach or of imagery, or a realization that the poem needs a turn to create tension or resolution. What is the hub of the poem, the real kernel at its core? To make a poem “work,” I have to have a sense of what that might be.

This type of emphasis is a form of concentration. I think we learn from focusing; it teaches the value of close study, a skill needed for analysis. It can also be a reminder of what is outside the area of attention. Focus needs context, or it ends up as navel-gazing.

For a visual example, consider Andy Goldsworthy‘s “Rain Shadows,” which are among the most transitory of his ephemeral works.

The opposite of making a snow angel, in these conceptual art pieces–and he would object to me calling them by that term–the artist lies on a sidewalk and waits until a light rain falls just enough to leave his figure on the ground. Of course, in no time, the rain fills in the figure, so he documents the “shadow” with a photograph.

Goldsworthy talks about the process, in a recent interview with Terry Gross (see link below).

I just concentrate on the rain. I’ve learned so much about rain — the different kinds of rains, the rhythms of rains. And people will say, “Oh, why don’t you just use a hose pipe?” That would be totally pointless. The point is not just to make the shadow, it’s to understand the rain that falls and the relationship with rain and the different rhythms of different rainfalls.

The “art” in Goldsworthy’s rain shadows–he also does this with snowfall–consists in a focus, a learning, a process that the viewer cannot participate in. Which is kind of weird. Unless, of course, seeing his rain shadows prompts other people to try making them, during which they will learn about rain’s rhythms and varieties.

In this way, Goldsworthy encourages focus and close attention to the world in which we live. I think I will file that under “inspiration.”

 

 

Empathy & compassion

quanyin
Quan Yin, bodhisattva or goddess of compassion; the Chinese interpretation of Avalokiteśvara

Sensitive. Or: oversensitive.

These are terms I hear bandied about to describe people who react deeply to anything from wool clothing or sock seams to sarcasm or “charged language.” When I was a child, people told me I was sensitive; initially, I thought that was a kind of compliment, and sometimes that was the intention. The teenager I once was believed that sensitivity made me empathetic and compassionate.

As I matured, however, the term sensitivity took on more negative connotations of the “can’t you take a joke?” sort. Worse yet, the charge of sensitivity came loaded with accusations of narcissism, as in “you take everything personally.” In today’s phraseology, “It’s not all about you.” Under those terms, sensitivity does not resemble empathy.

Empathy is a feeling-response, true. It appears to have a like-kind relationship to sensitivity–but a person must be sensitive to others’ experiences in order to feel empathy; so the similarity’s not as swappable as it first seems. I thought that my feeling-response signaled that I was a compassionate person. Indeed, fiction elicits empathy in me. A lifelong bookworm and early addict to novels, I definitely feel along with the characters of the stories I read. Is it really the experience of others that makes me weep or feel joy as the characters forge through lives such as I will never be able to encounter? Or is it a feeling response to damned good writing?

I ask myself these questions because, given my inquiries into what consciousness is and what poetry does, it seems I have not made clear to myself the differences between sensitivity, empathy, and compassion.

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My current thoughts on the differences have evolved through reading and writing poetry, not fiction, and through getting older. Nothing like life experience to knock a person’s youthful errors into strong relief.

Here goes:

Sensitivity is the strength of a person’s reaction. That reaction may be physical or emotional and will vary widely from one individual to another.

Empathy always means that one “feels within” another person (from Greek empatheia em- ‘in’ & pathos ‘feeling’); it is an inward response to external stimuli. As Daniel Goleman notes, there are several types of empathy psychologists have identified–here’s a brief article on that topic.

Compassion, while a noun, must be active. I think of it as behavior, as action, as verb in noun form. It is a response or reaction to suffering in others (empathy) that is accompanied by an urgent desire–the word desire isn’t strong enough to convey the feeling–to help alleviate the suffering.

That’s where the activity comes in. Until I feel a desire to act, I am “merely” empathetic and sensitive.

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Recently, I have begun to recognize that my desire to write poetry is partly compassion-based. Art of any kind is process as well as result, and process is action. Additionally, my career as an educator has compassionate action structured into the job description. There are other ways we–I–can be compassionate in the world. This matters to me.

We can learn from the practice of tonglen: “Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.” ~Pema Chödrön

And we can live in the world and begin to use our sensitivity to pain, and our sense of empathy, to activate compassion–as a verb.

 

 

 

 

 

Safety

I work, and sometimes teach, at a college campus–a small, quiet, safe university surrounded by cornfields and lightly-wooded slopes. The institution has a manual of protocols to ensure the safety of staff and students: lockdown procedures, early alerts, advising on harassment, threat, and signs of various types of needs along with preventive measures, communication protocol, background screening, and referrals. The administration has taken pains to assure the safety of students, faculty, and staff.

It seems that one of the most urgent desires of U.S. citizens is to be safe. We spend millions of hours and dollars on the quest to protect ourselves and our communities. We argue over whose responsibility that should be, though most of us recognize the responsibility–as in any social group–must be a shared one. After last week’s mass shooting tragedy, one Oregon college professor posted an open letter to her legislators (click here for story). Her situation parallels my own except that I have been at my college for many years and am aware of the protocols. But those procedures would be just as useless in my classroom as she envisions they would be in hers.

From a June 2015 New York Times article reporting on the Texas campus-carry legislation: “Opponents say the notion that armed students would make a campus safer is an illusion that will have a chilling effect on campus life. Professors said they worry about inviting a student into their offices to talk about a failing grade if they think that student is armed.” Most lawmakers have never been teachers. I think it unlikely they are aware of the stress and apprehension most of us feel in addition to our interest, concern, and compassion when dealing with a “difficult,” angry, or excessively anxious student. Yet we do not let our fears keep us from doing the jobs we love, disseminating what we have learned through study and experience to others and (usually) actively seeking their engagement in the discipline. That means taking intellectual risks. Occasionally, it means making oneself vulnerable to physical risks as well.

I am not suggesting there is something wrong-headed about wanting to feel secure; certainly that need is basic among human beings, keeping us in groups banded together for safety. But I do wonder whether the craving for safety distracts people from exploring and implementing other, perhaps more helpful, methods of operating as a society. To do so would require rejecting the norm, stepping away from the way we generally tend to do things (the way they’ve “always been done”) and endeavoring to create new approaches to our social maladies.

What might that look like, from the professor’s point of view? Or from the politician’s perspective, or a parental viewpoint? And are we, collectively, ready to take those risks?

photo by Patrick Target

photo, Patrick Target. Mary Mother of God statue above the campus.