de profundis

To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.
~ Friedrich Nietzsche

I am meeting with a group of students once a week this quarter, and as is often the case, when I make the long journey from my home to the campus, I wonder to myself as I’m gathering ideas for class, what’s it all for? What am I really doing for these people? Do they need what I have to offer them? Do they even care and my how ludicrous is it that I get paid so much money to talk about dust and bones? Of course, there’s lots of sighing, lots of self pity, a smirk here and there. Petals plucked and tossed into the wind as I gather up the energy to tap dance through yet another punctuation lesson. Nothing excites like a control freak perfectionist armed with punctuation, and I really could talk about that all day, but inevitably my spirit hovers above the classroom laughing as I admit to my students, no one really cares about commas anymore but me. The silly futility of it all can be a seductive trap, but then something happens that wipes all the cynicism away. Someone reminds me that words strung together become story, and that in the telling of our stories, we become who we are meant to be.

Earlier this week a young man contacted me requesting an appointment. He wanted to show me his essay, and I made an effort to be in my office on an off day to assist him. Shy and smiling, he handed me his assignment and we began to work through the language and structure. It was a paper on Nietzsche’s philosophy on suffering, and at many places I found myself stuck in the weeds. I had asked the students to reflect on Nietzsche’s theory that we can learn to be happy through suffering, that happiness does not come from escaping our troubles but from cultivating them and turning them to our advantage. You know the old line, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Well this young man was struggling to articulate this complex dichotomy, that suffering leads to happiness, and we spent most of our time on page one, untangling sentences and working through his throat-clearing repetition. In my mind, I thought his paper was a mess, and I caught myself slipping into self-pity, woe is suffering me who teaches these young people who can’t grapple with ideas! I was ready to send him off with a few suggestions and then resume that familiar place, hovering somewhere between tenderness and absurdity. But then I turned the page.

On page two he came out from behind all the mess, literally. Suddenly I understood what all the throat-clearing had been preparing me for. On page two he illustrated Nietzsche’s idea perfectly with storytelling that sharpened with sudden clarity and precision and vivid detail, all that kind of writing I’d been talking about during our weekly class meetings. On page two he wrote in a much more confident voice, describing how he suffered through adolescence because he was ashamed of who he was becoming, afraid his family would reject him, and too embarrassed and confused to tell anyone until a friend helped him find the courage to speak his truth. I’ve had students come out to me before, but most of them have been strictly distance learning students for whom the anonymity of the internet — or at least the facade of distance — enables them to express themselves more freely than they would in the brick and mortar classroom. But here sat my sweet student, upright and smiling, handing me himself in words on the page. I was overcome, not only with humility and gratitude for his trust in me, for his trust in the world really, but also for the nobility of my profession and the opportunities I’m given to be witness to the power of language, to the ways I might in some small way encourage someone to tell their story and make it true.

Often we get stuck in the weeds and lose sight of the sky, and how wonderful is it that just when you need them someone comes along to remind you to look up.

 


Dear Readers, an added footnote: Wordsworth famously said that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility.” I’ve never forgotten that line nor have I forgotten the professor who first taught it to me. My student’s paper did have heaps of grammatical errors and was in dire need of rearrangement — foremost of which included making his experience more central to the narrative — but there was poetry in his story and the act of writing brought it into being. And so I share with you some excerpts from another beautiful piece of writing penned by Oscar Wilde during his incarceration in a Victorian prison. At the height of his professional success (The Importance of Being Earnest was playing to sold out audiences in London’s West End) — and at a time when homosexuality was considered a crime punishable by law — Wilde was involved in a bitter sex scandal that resulted in a very public trial and conviction for indecency. His is a classic tabloid tragedy, the noble king brought low. During the two years he spent in prison, he turned his suffering as best he could into humility and joy through the act of writing. His jailors brought him a sheet of paper a day. They took whatever he wrote away so that he could not revise or reflect on what he had written, but the pages were collected and published posthumously in 1905, a few years after Wilde, forced by shame and shunning to change his name, died penniless and forgotten in a cheap Paris hotel. De Profundis tells the story of his spiritual transformation and of the artist’s affinity with Christ, a story not only of his profound suffering but of leaning into that suffering and ultimately finding in it, a beautiful joy.

 

 

Where there is sorrow there is holy ground.  Some day people will realise what that means.  They will know nothing of life till they do,—and natures like his can realise it.  When I was brought down from my prison to the Court of Bankruptcy, between two policemen,— [Robbie Ross] waited in the long dreary corridor that, before the whole crowd, whom an action so sweet and simple hushed into silence, he might gravely raise his hat to me, as, handcuffed and with bowed head, I passed him by.  Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that.  It was in this spirit, and with this mode of love, that the saints knelt down to wash the feet of the poor, or stooped to kiss the leper on the cheek.  I have never said one single word to him about what he did.  I do not know to the present moment whether he is aware that I was even conscious of his action.  It is not a thing for which one can render formal thanks in formal words.  I store it in the treasure-house of my heart.  I keep it there as a secret debt that I am glad to think I can never possibly repay.  It is embalmed and kept sweet by the myrrh and cassia of many tears.  When wisdom has been profitless to me, philosophy barren, and the proverbs and phrases of those who have sought to give me consolation as dust and ashes in my mouth, the memory of that little, lovely, silent act of love has unsealed for me all the wells of pity: made the desert blossom like a rose, and brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken, and great heart of the world.

I have lain in prison for nearly two years.  Out of my nature has come wild despair; an abandonment to grief that was piteous even to look at; terrible and impotent rage; bitterness and scorn; anguish that wept aloud; misery that could find no voice; sorrow that was dumb.  I have passed through every possible mood of suffering.  Better than Wordsworth himself I know what Wordsworth meant when he said—

‘Suffering is permanent, obscure, and dark
And has the nature of infinity.’

But while there were times when I rejoiced in the idea that my sufferings were to be endless, I could not bear them to be without meaning.  Now I find hidden somewhere away in my nature something that tells me that nothing in the whole world is meaningless, and suffering least of all.  That something hidden away in my nature, like a treasure in a field, is Humility.

It is the last thing left in me, and the best: the ultimate discovery at which I have arrived, the starting-point for a fresh development.  It has come to me right out of myself, so I know that it has come at the proper time.  It could not have come before, nor later.  Had any one told me of it, I would have rejected it.  Had it been brought to me, I would have refused it.  As I found it, I want to keep it.  I must do so.  It is the one thing that has in it the elements of life, of a new life, Vita Nuova for me.  Of all things it is the strangest.  One cannot acquire it, except by surrendering everything that one has.  It is only when one has lost all things, that one knows that one possesses it.

Now I have realised that it is in me, I see quite clearly what I ought to do; in fact, must do.  And when I use such a phrase as that, I need not say that I am not alluding to any external sanction or command.  I admit none.  I am far more of an individualist than I ever was.  Nothing seems to me of the smallest value except what one gets out of oneself.  My nature is seeking a fresh mode of self-realisation.  That is all I am concerned with.  And the first thing that I have got to do is to free myself from any possible bitterness of feeling against the world.

I am completely penniless, and absolutely homeless.  Yet there are worse things in the world than that.  I am quite candid when I say that rather than go out from this prison with bitterness in my heart against the world, I would gladly and readily beg my bread from door to door.  If I got nothing from the house of the rich I would get something at the house of the poor.  Those who have much are often greedy; those who have little always share.  I would not a bit mind sleeping in the cool grass in summer, and when winter came on sheltering myself by the warm close-thatched rick, or under the penthouse of a great barn, provided I had love in my heart.  The external things of life seem to me now of no importance at all.  You can see to what intensity of individualism I have arrived—or am arriving rather, for the journey is long, and ‘where I walk there are thorns.’

Of course I know that to ask alms on the highway is not to be my lot, and that if ever I lie in the cool grass at night-time it will be to write sonnets to the moon.  When I go out of prison, R— will be waiting for me on the other side of the big iron-studded gate, and he is the symbol, not merely of his own affection, but of the affection of many others besides.  I believe I am to have enough to live on for about eighteen months at any rate, so that if I may not write beautiful books, I may at least read beautiful books; and what joy can be greater?  After that, I hope to be able to recreate my creative faculty.

But were things different: had I not a friend left in the world; were there not a single house open to me in pity; had I to accept the wallet and ragged cloak of sheer penury: as long as I am free from all resentment, hardness and scorn, I would be able to face the life with much more calm and confidence than I would were my body in purple and fine linen, and the soul within me sick with hate.

And I really shall have no difficulty.  When you really want love you will find it waiting for you.

 

To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development.  To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life.  It is no less than a denial of the soul.

~ Oscar Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900)

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awkward.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

Franz Kafka, “The Metamorphosis”

In my critical thinking class the students and I are getting ready to read some gothic fiction — we’re going to talk about monsters and misfits in some great books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  I can’t wait!  But to prepare them for this kind of reading they’re not quite used to, we’ll be starting a little closer to home with our first book, Stephen Chbosky’s acclaimed coming of age novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  Our research question this quarter is essentially, why here?  why now?  With so many vampire stories and popular TV hits like MTVs Awkward and Lena Dunham’s HBO TMI-fest Girls, popular culture seems engaged in a revenge of the weird, or well, awkward, and is so ready to make monsters sexy and laugh at these most humiliating times in our lives, the times during adolescence and young adulthood when we find ourselves transforming into some kind of creature of the night.  I hope to get the students to see that these kinds of stories, and the gothic horror they love so much, are creative outlets for exploring subversive ideas and values that might make us uncomfortable — sexuality, difference, technological or societal change just to name a few things to make you anxious.  I think one of the things Dunham does so well with her show Girls is lay out there these “awkward” images, images we’re not used to seeing like a not-so-hot girl getting naked in every episode, finding plenty of guys to sleep with, and laughing at herself.  During the first season she argues with her best friend and says, “No one could ever hate me as much as I hate myself.  OK?  So any mean thing that someone’s gonna think of to say about me I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half-hour.”  I find her comfort with discomfort refreshing and empowering, and despite all the criticism she receives for doing it, I think her show’s a significant game changer.

I’m sure you remember those awkward years, don’t you?  When your teeth were too big or too crooked or covered in metal?  When you still let your mom cut your hair at the kitchen table and dress you in homespun fashions sent from grandma?  When over one summer your face erupted with acne and your body grew up and out or worse, not at all.  You pulled the covers over your head and in the night, Dr. Frankenstein set to work.  You’d wake up from strange dreams and walk onto the school campus feeling more and more like an alien with each passing day.  Simultaneously attracted to and fleeing from blood-thirsty vampires, tripping over zombies . . . oh the horror of it all.  For me, adolescence was a total nightmare because in addition to all these things going on, I didn’t have my mom around to talk to.  It was a tremendously lonely time in my life, but like most people, I got through it once I found my people and together we traversed the apocalyptic landscape of those teenage and early adulthood years.  I’m asking my students to remember their experiences and to write stories about them, and we’re looking over a tumblr site, The Awkward Years Project, to remind us that our stories of transformation are inspiring.  Behind each of the stories on the website I see patience, good humor and a lot of compassion, a man or woman who has emerged from this wicked teenage experiment stronger, wiser, ready to ditch those uncomfortable memories and take on the next phase of the journey.


 

awkwardyearsMy Awkward Years Project

My grandmother made that dress, and it was floor length with a six-inch ruffled hem!  She would send a package of haute midwestern fashion those first few years of school, and each year the elastic armbands were too tight, the polyester too thick and the lace trims too scratchy.  My mother agreed they were hideous but trotted me down to K-Mart nonetheless to have my portrait taken in front of one of those roll-down backdrops, a smattering of birch trees or field of daisies clashing with the patchwork fabrics.  And if that wasn’t demoralizing enough, she also insisted I wear them on school picture day, I guess so I’d have even more awkward photos to show my kids one day.  Next to Laura Ingalls in her prairie dress would be me brace-faced in 7th grade, self-styling at this point and sporting a thin braided purple headband across my forehead.  I think it even had beads and a dangling purple feather that hung on one side by my ear.  Tragically hip, and with Farrah hair and Final Net to boot.  I look at pictures like these and cringe, recollecting all those times in elementary school without my mom around anymore to dress me.  With my short shaggy mop of red hair and mismatched outfits I endured Orphan Annie taunts, got chased out of my new school’s bathroom for looking like a boy, and wished I had someone to help make me look pretty, like a girl.  I think everyone has pitiful childhood stories like this, times we felt weird, embarrassed, alone.  A few weeks ago when my 7th grader asked to see my middle school yearbooks, I was actually surprised to find I had had a lot of friends.  The inside covers are filled with signatures from my classmates: to a sweet girl, stay sweet, you are a total sweetheart, I’m glad I got to know you.  There are some teasing messages from boys I had crushes on and these notes from my teachers: Rebecca you are a terrific story writer.  Board, I think you’re right things come easy to you, unlike other people in the Spanish B class.  I knew that last year . . . I enjoyed your presence in class, I’m going to miss your smiles and strange looks.  Thank you so much for helping me in the library, you are such a dear and I always enjoy being with you.  I’ll miss your sweet smile . . . .  I read these messages and wonder, um, what about that girl who never got asked to dance?  Did she really smile so much?  People thought she was sweet?!  My ten-year high school reunion was held in a tavern–which seemed fitting for our graduating class–and all the guests wore name tags with their senior pictures on them.  As I was leaving to catch up with my husband and friends in the parking lot afterwards, my name tag had fallen off onto the floor, and who was there to reach down at the same time as me to pick it up but Richie Johnson!  Richie, the all-American nice guy, the baseball and football hero with the vintage car.  We had shared some mutual friends in a wide social circle, but I was certainly never on the inside of that circle like he was.  I never had boyfriends and I think I went to the homecoming dance with my best friend, Lisa, and to the prom with some skater boy who ditched me for the hills of San Francisco.  Well it was just like a scene from a movie.  We both bent down to pick up my name tag but Richie got to it first.  He looked at the picture as he handed it back to me, smiling that smile.  You were so pretty, he said, but you were so shyYou were so pretty, but you were so shy.  I will never forget that moment — granted it was ten years late, but it was as if I had finally arrived!  I ran out to the parking lot and climbed into the car breathless and beaming, Richie Johnson thinks I’m pretty!  Richie Johnson said I was pretty!  As if his saying so suggested I had been all along.  I wish I could say in that moment my transformation from gigantic insect to goddess was complete, but it would take a few more years — years of patience, good humor, and a lot of compassion — before I could comfortably toss my hair back and wave, smiling with self-love, antennas and all.

 

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so i read a bestseller and lived to write about it

According to biggest love I am the best mom in the world because I let her skip school yesterday to see the latest YA trilogy to hit the big screen.  It was educational, I rationalized, because she would be coming to work with me, seeing me interact with my students, and tagging along on our fieldtrip to the local cinemaplex where we’d planned to watch the movie version of Veronica Roth’s novel Divergent.  My community college students loved the book and wrote some good papers rooted in its themes of transformation and belonging.  I pretty much looked the other way.

Don’t get me wrong–any book that gets non-readers excited and turning pages is better than no book at all.  But this was a writing class, and after spending several weeks teaching them the art of the sentence, how to combine their short simple sentences a variety of ways and tune their voices for a more sophisticated academic audience, we began to read Roth.  Coordination?  Subordination?  Forget the semicolon — she wrote in their voices: simple.  short.  sweet.  Perhaps it isn’t the best book to use as a prose model, but nonetheless, it got them thinking about basic narrative devices and reflecting on their own lives.  And with my lowered expectations, I was not disappointed by the film at all.

It was cheesy.  Undeveloped and altered as most movie versions of novels are.  A dystopian Chicago one hundred years after a civil war, where peace is kept only when individuals commit to one of five factions based on their knowledge of who they think they are (at age 16 *snort): amity, erudite, dauntless, abnegation, or candor.  Choose to remain in the faction you are born into, or leave your family to join another.  Fail and you join the factionless forced to live outside the system.  Of course the protagonist, Tris, does not know where she belongs since her aptitude test was inconclusive.  She’s divergent and must keep this a secret since divergents with more than one dominant character trait pose a threat to the carefully controlled society.  The narrative conflict builds around her decision to leave her abnegation family and join the dauntless, a reckless tribe of horribly stereotypical counterculture types in dark clothing with piercings and tattoos and no concept of the inside voice.  This first book in the trilogy focuses on Tris’s personal transformation from timid girl to brave hero, and I must confess to you I enjoyed this Girl Power aspect of the novel, especially sharing it with my daughter at the theater yesterday.

Some have criticized the story, calling it yet another tale of a brave woman whose transformation still depends on a man’s affection and approval.  While there is some YA romance to keep the pages turning, I have to disagree with this assessment overall and argue there’s a positive upturning of the cart going on here.  My favorite part of the book (and movie) is when Tris’s abnegation mother reveals her own divergence.  In her gray abnegation garb, she steps out of the shadows toting a gun and dauntlessly runs out into the street to cover for her daughter as they make their way through a hailstorm of bullets.  A Princess-Leia-at-her-best moment — you know, Leia with the blaster and not the gold bikini.  Biggest love and I clung tightly to each other during this intense scene in the movie, and I couldn’t help but feel connected to their fearlessness and to the mother’s willingness to sacrifice herself and shield her daughter from danger.  Oh, it’s cliché.  I know.  But it also isn’t.  The dashing and mysterious romantic interest whose affection empowered and encouraged her?  Her father, the political leader of the city?  They’re both incapacitated.  Trapped and helpless.  Dependent on her strength, knowledge, and skill to save them.  Simple.  Short.  Sweet.  But a story worth telling.

 

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