For over a week I passed the cherry blossoms on my way to the office with a thought of stopping to walk among them, lie under them, sit on a nearby bench, maybe take photographs. I wanted to be part of them and part of spring before it passed. But I had no time–not to go to the water basin in the city, not even to pull over on my walk to the office. And I didn’t have the mental space to take in something so hard to take in to begin with–the marvel that is spring. But I’m not really talking about the marvel that is spring. I’m talking about work.
A week of nonstop conferences had rolled right into a week of nonstop grading on top of classes and meetings. The ins and outs of 85 research projects filled my thought, blocking the view of just about anything else. You know how it is when you’re working on a project and you stop working on it, it’s still there in the background and you’re actually still working on it? Or how it is when you have a conversation, but you run out of time, and you keep thinking about other things you want to say? Take those things and multiply them times 85. So I could not see the cherry blossoms.
Then one morning, again on my way to the office, I again saw the cherry blossoms and again lamented my lack of time, and whether I was tired of that thought or close enough to the end of my grading I don’t know, but I finally stepped off the path and took some photographs. It took just five, maybe seven, minutes. But it felt so good. It felt so important.
As I walked to my office I had a new feeling. I was no longer the victim of my workload or of time. The day wasn’t already written–an interminable scene of me and my laptop and my students’ work a burden on my shoulders. The day had possibilities.
I was reminded of something I know but don’t always have the discipline to live by–we need to win our work back from its circumstances, especially in academia where the semester stops for no one, where–if you’re a composition teacher–you’re likely managing some 90 students, and if you’re like my average student, you’re taking five classes and also working a job. Each project becomes a mere task–something to get through as quickly and expediently as possible because the tasks just keep coming.
I’ve long felt this situation is exactly inimical to the thoughtful, exploratory, earnest process we want our students to engage in as thinkers and writers. We want them to pay attention to details, pursue curiosity, be willing to be surprised, and reflect on what they’re doing. Yet we require them to work in a context of serious busyness, time pressure, and evaluation, not to mention economic debt. What should be a joy-filled and soul-filled adventure of learning becomes a shallow and calculated game of penalties and rewards. That so many of my students do care and try and are patient with surprises, that some are hugely ambitious and artful and idealistic is something to celebrate. I just wish such successes weren’t in spite of the circumstances of their education.
But for now wresting work from its circumstances is a worthy struggle. I try to resist the urge to see my day as a number of papers to get through even while I have to count them up and estimate the time they’ll take and get through them all as quickly as possible. I try to think of the person behind the paper and take the time to hear their voice even while I must dissect the paper like a specimen and assign it a grade. I try to care about the ideas and not just the writing. I try to describe what’s been done well and not just explain how to get a better grade. The work of teaching is not as black and white as this–the dissecting is helpful; grades can be clear and motivating–but it’s at least a precarious balancing act.
Sometimes it’s hard not to play the game of getting things done. Common sense says I have to. It’s called time management. It’s called sustainable work habits. It’s called wisdom. Some students, too, play the game. They come to class for the points and listen between texting and doing homework for other classes. They do just enough of the assignments to get the grade they’ve decided they need to pass the class or to keep up their GPA. They strategize and call it professionalism, taking pride in it. I get it. But I’ve also been at this long enough to know that it’s worth stopping for the cherry blossoms, that I feel most proud of a professionalism that takes the time to care, to master the workload instead of being mastered by it.
Two weekends ago it snowed here in Virginia, and the winter landscape made me nostalgic for Kyrgyzstan. Though I grew up near Chicago with plenty of snow, when the white stuff falls it takes me to Central Asia instead. I think it must be because my experience of winter there was more visceral and the backdrop of my greatest adventure.
Winter was not more visceral, nor my experience more adventurous, because I lived in the mountains that comprise 90ish percent of Kyrgyzstsan. I lived in the Ferghana Valley, in a city called Osh. Winter in Osh was more visceral because it was less resisted than in places like Chicago or Arlington.
For example, Osh had some snow removal—trucks that plowed and spread sand—but smaller roads, sidewalks, and paths could go un-cleared. Last Monday when I went for a walk and hit a patch of slick snow that had evaded the shovels of Arlingtonians, I was taken back to Kyrgyzstan where trying not to wipe out was a seasonal challenge for me. In a country where kids without sleds slid down slippery hills in a squat, I always felt like a klutz on the packed snow and ice. For me, walking required real attention—to the ground, my posture, my steps. It was tense. It was scary. Imagine, for example, trying to navigate slick uneven stairs or trying to keep your feet with people jostling in the bazaar, where only the sun and foot traffic gradually melted the snow that invariably sojourned as ice before its eventual evaporation.
Then there was the cold. It’s not that it was acute, so much as chronic. The indoor spaces I frequented were poorly heated. My host family generously gave me a room of my own, but it had no heat. So at night I pulled my Peace Corps-issued space heater next to my cot and, in pajamas, wool socks, a fleece jacket, and a hat, slid into my sleeping bag and zipped it to the top. Space heaters were also used in the offices and classrooms of the university where I routinely wore tights under jeans, fleece lined boots, two shirts, a sweater, a fleece jacket, and a wool coat all day.
One lesson I learned in Kyrgyzstan is that inconveniences tend to have silver linings, and coping with cold gave me a fuller appreciation for hot showers, tea, and soup. The latter had always been a mere menu choice in the U.S., more about ingredients than temperature. But in Osh, soup was an opportunity to warm your hands on a bowl, lean your face over an arabesque of steam, and feel the warm food heat you from the inside.
In hindsight I also think there must also have been a less resistant attitude toward winter in Osh because, in general, people were less insistent on working and more reverent of relaxation. For example, people of Kyrgyzstan love their holidays, celebrating a few for several days at a time. Three holidays occurring in the first week of May—Constitution Day, May Day, and Victory Day—are usually turned into a nine-day vacation by the government that has the purview to create one-off holidays each year and to move holidays around for maximum time off. A week and a half of holiday seems indulgent in the U.S. where I think a lot of people love a snow day or two but then want to get back to work.
Osh was more open to winter and I was too. Part of it was my lifestyle, but more of it was my overall orientation. I had gone halfway around the world and was trying to thrive in a different culture. Openness was the order of the day if I was going to fit into my host family, learn Russian, eat the food, or bathe (in a banya). Some things came easily, provoked by my surroundings: curiosity, observation, wonder. Other things required more effort: extroversion, flexibility, humility. It was in this mindset, in December, that I moved to Osh after my training and experienced a winter whose snows made the world as boundless and wonder-struck as my outlook.
Mondays get a bad rap, but when I start a new work week, I often find myself entertaining an attitude of openness that speeds my morning commute. After a weekend knocking around the apartment and walking around town, it feels good to be in the car again, taking in the views afforded by the hills of Northern Virginia and enjoying the alchemy of suburban landscapes through the presence of crows.
But as the week progresses, I get more and more into the details and demands of work. The mental landscape shrinks, and the days collect in my mind like playing cards in the hand. I’ve got a Monday and a Tuesday. I wonder if Wednesday will be like Tuesday or maybe like the last Wednesday life dealt me the week before. I’m strategizing, predicting, planning, comparing, reacting, and lots of small preconceived notions pile up.
The weather today is ___, so today will be ___.
My schedule today is the same as on Tuesday, so today will probably be ____ again.
It’s ____ week in the semester, so today might be ____.
The last time I had to do ____ I had a ____ day, so today could be ____ again.
Tomorrow I need to ____, so today should be ____.
Sometimes preconceived notions help me manage my time and keep things in perspective, as when I remind myself how long it generally takes to grade a particular assignment and that grading marathons are only one part of my job.
But I wonder if preconceived notions, as harmless as they might seem, don’t precondition me to expect and notice certain things at the expense of others, constricting my view like a pair of blinders.
After two days of heavy rain, last Wednesday was sunny and blue-skied. It was hard to miss the newness of that day as I drove into work. The trees’ autumn colors were bold, and the smell of cold conjured memories of other places and times that enhanced my appreciation of the present moment.
During my walk from the parking lot to my office, a worm waved its curled self at me from a concrete step. I continued on my way but then thought, there was no worm yesterday, and no one else may notice this worm on the steps. I went back and, with a stick, removed the worm from under foot and placed it on the neighboring dirt. It felt so good I was astounded.
Upon reflection, I think part of it was the worm but part of it was the thrill of participating in a day as something unpredictable and unique—something with a kind of autonomy, like a person you could meet who has a wealth of surprises to offer—something far different from the things we collect and chop up into hours and classes and meetings and meals and good things and hard things that happen to us.
I went into this week wanting to be more open to each new day and whatever unpredictable things, big or small, it might bring. But I’ve hardly gotten any traction. But I think that’s another thing that can block my view of today—wanting to find in it the good things of yesterday.
This month, selections from a collaborative manuscript of hybrid correspondence between me and my creative partner Rebecca Hart Olander appeared in the August spotlight of Duende and in They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing from Black Lawrence Press. It’s an exciting co-incidence.
It’s been a summer for collaboration and other things “co-“. Rebecca and I have been at work on another manuscript, and in May we co-taught a workshop on collaborative writing at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival.
In June and July, I co-taught a graduate research course for international students who collaborated in the completion of group projects. In just ten weeks, the students reviewed literature on sports marketing, transformational leadership, and co-opetition, which is cooperation among business competitors. And they did it all with much good humor despite little sleep.
When I think of the word “collaboration,” I think of a complex and colorful dynamic like a Kandinsky painting. But the Latin roots are “col” meaning together and “laborare” meaning to work, and to collaborate is simply to work together. That phrase takes me back to grade school, but there’s nothing elementary about collaboration. Every time I see students working together productively, I feel like they’re adding a weight to the world’s scales on the side of harmony. I’m particularly inspired when I see people from around the world working together not only in spite but in appreciation of their differences, as I have at English Now! (a school I can’t recommend highly enough to anyone in the D.C. area wanting to work on English language).
My first month teaching at English Now! I learned an important lesson in collaboration and communication. It was July, and I had a group of young teen students who were visiting D.C. and studying English for a month. They were from Belgium, France, Gabon, Italy, and Russia. It was my first time back in an ESL classroom in quite a while, and I was struck by the differences in the students’ listening and speaking skills. But the bigger challenge was one particular student who was there through parental coercion–an eye-rolling, distracting, snoozing, begrudging participant. I could quite literally see the collaborative nature of communication as my instructions and explanations had widely varying results depending on the students’ skills and motivation.
Having just spent the previous two years working on an MFA, this was a humbling illustration of how the best preparation and presentation of words is only part of the equation of communication. Meaning is a collaboration between speaker and listener, though those categories hugely simplify the work together in which everyone is simultaneously speakers and listeners and so much more–eaters who did or didn’t have breakfast, philosophers working out the meaning of life, kids on the playground trying to make friends. Which words and nonverbal cues will be taken in and how, what feelings, thoughts, and responses they’ll elicit are all up for grabs. Seeing this was actually a huge relief, as it clarified what I could and couldn’t do. I could do my part, but everyone else had to do theirs too. It was kind of like being in an orchestra, but I wasn’t the conductor. I was a fellow musician, and the conductor was our mutual interest or goal–our desire to make music, or learn.
In case the lesson wasn’t clear, life handed me another illustration. I began co-teaching at George Mason University. My first semester, I hung back a lot and observed my teaching partner. Every day I saw how we noticed and thought the same things. For example, if I saw the students were dragging and felt they could use a break, in the next moment my teaching partner would suggest we take a break. If I thought I would relate an idea back to something we said earlier, in the next moment she would do that. I think this showed an overall compatibility between us that would become more apparent to me over time. But it also made me feel less personally responsible for ideas. They were out there to be discerned and acted on, like notes and rhythm.
After I’d learned the course, I took a normal active role in the classroom, and occasionally my teaching partner and I would have different ideas about how to do something. One memorable time, a technical problem resolved the issue for us, and I watched my teaching partner lead the lesson her way. It worked out well, and this was a another huge lesson to me. It didn’t mean that my way wouldn’t have worked, but it showed me that what I thought was important (doing something a particular way) wasn’t as important as I thought. I saw that when everyone wants to play the music, the music gets played. The idea that my planning and best ideas weren’t as crucial as I thought came as another relief. I haven’t stopped crafting lessons using my best ideas, but I don’t feel like those things will make or break the learning, which I’ve begun to see has an autonomy of its own, like a piece of a music, and also participates in the collaboration.
I wonder who first described lawns as manicured. It’s an expression hard to resist–it’s so on target yet out of the box in its connecting herbage to finger nails. My guess is we like how the surprising association adds a touch of irreverence to the description of something so controlled, precious, and planned. The expression is a little wild in its depiction of this cultivated characteristic of civilization.
Is it human nature to enjoy a little irreverence, to want to see at least one tiny hole punched in an otherwise perfect facade? And what is the appeal of the faded and dilapidated? I, for one, am easily charmed by unique surroundings such as the weathered towns of Luquillo in Puerto Rico or Tokmok in Kyrgyzstan. On the other hand, well-tended and planned-out places like American suburbs, including the one I live in, often provoke skepticism and rebellion in me.
I wonder how many people share my responses. My husband has a much greater appreciation for the nice suburbs of the U.S. and is less impressed with the charm of disrepair. I could chalk it up to our coming from different places–I from a Chicago suburb and he from a town in Central Asia–but I suspect more American suburbanatives would share his tastes than mine. I wonder if that’s true, and if so, what’s up with my predilection. But this is hardly the first time I’ve pondered this, and I do have some thoughts.
First, I know I dislike homogeneity, which the suburb where I currently live has in spades–central Arlington is a relentless pageant of brown contemporary apartment buildings. I also have a snobbish distaste for the predictable. Of course I like it in some things–the operation of a car or computer. But as the dominating characteristic of my environment, I find it numbing. I also value spontaneity, originality, and authenticity. It can be hard to spot these qualities in a place where everything is pre-planned and highly controlled. I’m also a connoisseur of warnings against “the planners.” John Berger, Wendell Berry, Walker Percy, and Joy Williams illuminate the ways that planning (especially the planning of specialists) turns us into consumers and creates ignorance, complacency, and disappointment. I’m thinking of Ways of Seeing, “The Pleasures of Eating,” “The Loss of the Creature,” and “Save the Whales Screw the Shrimp.” Like predictability, planning has its value, and it’s something I do a lot of, as I suspect most of us do. But these writers have persuaded me that planning should be questioned and even evaded. In fact, I built a course around the idea. But that’s another story. On to the one at hand.
Well, I was leaving one of my Arlington cafe haunts when I noticed a refreshingly untended strip of earth in the parking lot. It tickled my eyes, and I set my iced coffee on the ground and took some pictures.
I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to find as many of these untended places as I can and take some pictures? Maybe they could inspire a poem or something. And so I did. Sort of. I didn’t go out of my way, but I kept my eyes open for any raw spots along my usual paths through town.
It was even more difficult than I expected. There were only a few margins where I encountered the unplanned.
While I thought my project would enhance my appreciation of these rare bursts of spontaneity, it had a greater opposite effect. I became more conscious of how thoroughly and consistently people care for this town.
Planters in front of buildings, tree-lined streets, groomed and landscaped yards, and every opportunity for a park keep Arlington green, blossomed, sculpted, and composed. My project evaded my planning.
1. wild NOoN
Now we live lOud
Now we uNveil uNwOven wild life
we wield unwed lOve vow
2. Noon ClOud
we unwiNd wouNd
we unfiNd fouNd
New Nil NOw
3. wiNd wove CoOl veil
iN vOile of dew
wiNd wouNd COld eNd
wiNd would diN CoO
iN COwled CoOl
iN OunCe of viCe