Sunday, May 17, 2009

On Effortlessly Deleting

[image, a journal made by Brush Dance]
So now Surya Das has me thinking about all the selves I lost along the way. It has sometimes taken great effort, especially when it meant losing a dream. . . .

This despite the fact that the universe has done its best to give me what I desired. I realized that just now as I was adding a to-do item to the sticky note on my home page, and backed up to erase. Delete, I mean. Well, there's probably the problem right there. I still think in terms of "erase" when the world (or this privileged part of the world) has moved on from the manual typewriter and the white eraser made specifically to erase errors made on a typewriter.

I could not have dreamed of such a thing, a typewriter you could erase effortlessly, whose font you could change with a few strokes, from which you could send your thoughts around the world without anyone's permission. What I did dream of was not being a secretary anymore. I didn't really know what my problem was with that; in fact, I would have made a good executive secretary, in part because of my 1950's training to anticipate a man's needs. But working on the lower levels, I was often forced to sit and look busy. I never had a challenging task. Ever. And my work seemed meaningless to me. I had higher aspirations than playing a tiny part in building good tires.

Well, the universe did get me out of that and into college, and being an English major. I was sure teaching college would a big boost upward, out of the realm of girl work into the brave new world brought to us by the 1960's. Not that we knew it was happening even to us in middle-class middle America. We watched the British singing sensation, The Beatles, on the Ed Sullivan show, and didn't really get it. By the time they produced Sgt. Pepper though, I was first to buy it, and unveiled it at a party for my students. That was the high point of my teaching career, that first year, that party.

Actually, teaching college freshman and sophomores, which is what you're doomed to until you prove yourself with years of grueling labor, a kind of hazing, this kind of teaching is not an improvement over being a secretary in the general engineering department of Firestone Tire & Rubber Company. As a secretary, I got to go home at night without a stack of fifty themes to grade. I had clearly defined tasks which I could complete. I was bored by the work, but never exhausted.

Teaching freshman English, though, turned out not to be so much about meaningful work as I had imagined. . . I tried to learn how to teach writing, and the more I read about it, the more I could see that it couldn't be taught at a late age in a classroom of 25 students who don't want to be there. As for teaching American literature, what was our purpose in that class? To teach kids who the major figures were? But that kept changing. To get kids to love delicately crafted and profoundly sensitive written works? How do you do that? Many scholars think it has to be done at an early age, maybe by being read to by your parents. By the time we got kids in college, their hatred of what they had to read was formed. In 1995 I left academia not knowing where to go, just wanting out.

It has been a tremendously steep learning curve for me to figure out what I liked to do - create. Anything. Learn anything. Then I got all knotted up in trying to commodify what I did, for the deepest mid-century belief my parents shared was that money is everything. My father meant what he said, that Mother Theresa was a scam, that my cousin Wanda and her husband, who took in foster children, had some material motive. Money was the only conceivable motive. Worth was about money. No wonder I liked Buddhism when I found it, those stories about hermit monks who owned nothing but one robe, one bowl, and left their poems scrawled on boulders, or pinned to the wall of an inn. The very idea of not striving. Not striving?! Striving was everything, too. If I could write a book, I would look at the tragedies wrought by that Western belief.

Moving from "ought" to "like" is in a way the life story of anyone raised in the fifties, but I suppose it's a natural part of human development; children want to please their parents and teachers, learn the rules, be accepted in society. From then on, you're becoming your own person by following your own crooked path. I have a Brush Dance card on my desk with a saying by Lao Tsu. Maybe I have posted it before:
The way is simple,
but the crooked path is more popular.
The way is simple, the heart way, and the heart is a good guide, but I don't know anyone who hasn't had to take a crooked path to get there.

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