It’s supposed to rain all day today, and it doesn’t disappoint: from the morning, we know that there’ll be no scooters, no jumping rope, no swinging.
It’s just a day to stay inside, perhaps stay in our PJs for as long as possible.
We watch cartoons, make wish lists for Santa,
drink lots of tea and coffee,
and I grade a mountain of papers before tomorrow’s mid-term grading deadline.
And so now it’s almost eleven, and the only thing I really want to do is sleep.
I was reading tonight, and I came across a passage that got me thinking about you again:
Most people, too, recognize the need for some immaterial moral principles as well: justice, fairness, freedom, love, compassion, solidarity, and so on. These are abstractions, manifested in concrete events, but not exhausted by those events. We measure the material manifestations against the abstract ideal we hold in our minds.
Music and art, too, move us from the sensory to the abstract. Most people who listen to a Mozart composition will conclude that its thousands of variations in pitch add up to something, evoke something, stand for something greater.The sounds of Mozart move us from the sensible to the abstract, the sensible to the insensible. Aesthetic experiences are not important to everyone, but they can be a profound mystery to an unbeliever who is open to their power, a spiritual foot in the materialist’s door.
I found myself wondering, again, if you’d ever been struck dumb by beauty, if something had moved you so deeply that you stopped in your tracks. And I thought back to all the things you told me today, all the facets of your reality that I find completely incomprehensible because I can’t imagine one stranger treating another like that, let alone one’s parent — I thought about all these things and realized it’s impossible for you to have experienced this. No, it’s not the usual rant I have about kids and classical music today, about your short attention spans and inability to keep multiple thoughts going in your head. It’s much more basic than that:
It’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, that triangle all teachers see again and again in all the various psychology courses we have to take as undergraduates (and even graduate students). The premise is basic: the needs on the bottom must be fulfilled before those above them can be fulfilled. One cannot worry about employment if one cannot breath without great difficulty. One cannot worry about friendship if one doesn’t feel safe. One cannot worry about self-esteem if one’s familial needs are not met. And one cannot worry about self-actualization until all the other needs are met. I’m not sure I totally agree with all of this: morality as being a top-level need strikes me as being unnecessarily postmodern. Still, for your situation, it resonates: how can you worry about beauty when you have to spend your time going out and looking for your father, who disappears only to reappear months later to inform you that he’ll likely be going to prison shortly? How can you worry about beauty when your mother and her boyfriend have knock-down fights and then blame them on you? How can you be concerned about aesthetics when the relative you stay with quit often is falling-down drunk? The only needs you seem to be having met are the physiological ones, and those just barely.
Once again, though, as you spoke, I felt like more of a part of the problem than the solution. I’ve been hard on you in class: I’ve taken things personally that I really had no business taking personally. I’ve responded like a caged animal at times though
What’s almost as tragic as your home situation is your school situation, then. How can we as teachers expect you to focus on higher-order thinking and fulfilling higher needs when your most basic go unmet? How can we hold you entirely and unquestionably responsible for behaviors that are defense mechanisms? How can we call ourselves teachers if we don’t work to figure out what’s going on with you, to stop taking your behaviors personally and start acting like an adult, unlike your guardians?
And how can the school system expect of you these things? Test you on these things and declare you’re, in one form or another, a failure because you don’t meet these standards? How can the school system expect us teachers to be truly successful with you when we’re like everyone else, ignoring all your basic needs in order to meet a score quota? How can the school system not realize that with some children, the academics are of secondary, tertiary, or even quaternary or quinary?
I can’t answer these questions, unfortunately. But perhaps, with the honesty we shared today, we can figure out some answers that work for us.
This time of year, we always get everyone together for a full family portrait. We go to a park or just pile up some leaves and get a few shots of the four of us, the six of us, the two of them. This year, with a carpet of yellow in the backyard, there was only one option.
First, the Girl and I went out for some test shots while the Boy took his nap. The light was just right, but Nana and Papa weren’t due for another two hours, so I went in and arranged an earlier arrival.
In fact, though, the light had been absolutely sublime in the morning.
But who wants to head out at eight in the morning in sub-freezing weather for portraits?
But light is light: unless you’re shooting in the middle of the day without any shade, a little creativity can produce good results no matter the angle of the light.
Besides, there are always props and post-processing. On second thought, perhaps the clothes are a bit off. Oh well.
It’s the idea that counts in art, isn’t it?
Once, returning from a class field trip to Strasbourg to the small village in Poland where I taught, our bus sat at the border of Slovakia and Poland for some ridiculous amount of time — two or three hours — for some reason that I never determined other than the fact that something was out of order for someone. I could see the mountain at the base of our village, Babia Gora, rising above the forest, and I knew that I could easily cross the border on foot and walk there in probably a bit over an hour. Yet there we sat.
That was in 1998. Now there’s not even an official building of any significance in that location. Only a sign indicates that you’re crossing from one EU nation to another. All the stamps in my passport from crossing into Slovakia for a bike ride or crossing back into Poland after crossing into Slovakia at some other location, all those stamps are now all the more valuable because they will never be again, like old black and white pictures of the past.
Some things of course haven’t changed. Poland and Slovakia are still separate nations with separate governments and different currencies (with Slovakia moving to the Euro and Poland still using the zloty). And they issue different passports, both of which are different from the blue-covered passport I’ve always had. These different-colored, different-formatted little booklets made all the difference for K and me when we first came to the States, with her having to go wait in a different line and meet with various people when we first arrived. There were of course advantages: one could easily and quickly tell whose passport was whose. Insignificant of course but still. There were other differences. During election cycles, K could ask who I was voting for though I couldn’t ask her. Naturally we would have already known, and likely we would have voted for the same candidates, but still.
As of today, though, K and I can both have those lovely blue booklets. We could even go vote together as she now holds dual citizenship.
It was something we could have done much earlier, but we needed a practical motivation, I suppose. Finally, time and circumstance provided so much potential inconvenience, with a soon-expiring Polish passport and an even-sooner-expiring Green Card, we decided it was time to go ahead and file the paperwork, take the exams, and raise that right hand to make the Oath of Allegiance.
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.
The whole ceremony lasted only half an hour, and included a video of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American.”
It’s a song I misunderstood in my youth. “How can I be proud of something I had nothing to do with?” I asked. “That I was born in America is little more than an accident, a bit of good fortune.” Pride was something you felt about your own accomplishments, I thought, not about who you are. It never really occurred to me, for some reason, that one could be embarrassed to be an American, be ashamed of being an American, feel hatred toward one’s own country. I encountered that soon enough, and I came to understand what Greenwood was trying to say with that song.
And I came to see that there is quite a bit about America to feel some sort of embarrassment about, even shame. No country is perfect, and America, both overtly and covertly, has done some truly questionable things in the name of national interests. Yet there’s no questioning the almost-unimaginable nature of the nation’s founding principles: a group of people that governs itself, that is subject to the rule of law, that in theory if not always in fact presents a level field for all participants. That’s something to be proud of.
In the English I Honors classes I teach, I work with some really bright, really thoughtful kids, and I get to do some really fun things with them, like introduce them to Shakespeare with Romeo and Juliet. One of the most confusing passages for readers is Mercutio’s long Queen Mab speech, which begins:
O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spiders’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
To help with their understanding by forcing them to read it line by line, I have them draw a picture of Queen Mab. In the past, they’ve come up with some striking examples.
This year, one young man was particularly persistent on one small detail: “Mr. Scott,” he began, “how can she have a whip made of a cricket’s bone? Crickets don’t have bones; they have exoskeletons.”
“Can I just call you Pete?” I ask. I often ask students if I can call them random names. Just something silly I do.
Then I remember an old joke.
“You and Repeat were sitting on a log. You fell off. Who was left?”
“You and Repeat were sitting on a log. You fell off. Who was left?”
“You and Repeat were sitting on a log. You fell off. Who was left?”
“Oh, I get it.”
First there was the tea party. The prototypical cliche little girl game, the tea party has never really been a frequent occurrence in our house. I’m not sure why it made an appearance today. But there they were, all sipping tea.
Then there was the homework. Reading comprehension. “Go back to the text,” I reminded L time and time again. “Go back to the text. Don’t try to answer the question from memory.” And so as the Girl progresses through school, the things I say in the classroom start popping up during the homework sessions.
Finally, the kids in bed, K and I turn to cooking. “We haven’t had rosół in a while,” K said some time ago, and so tonight we cook that Polish favorite that’s really an international soup. After all, what is pho in essence but chicken noodle soup, which is exactly what rosół is. Sort of.
F. Boyle, in his homily during the vigil Mass yesterday, spoke of being haunted by our former selves, of casting a backward glance over our shoulders at our younger selves and feeling shame, feeling disgust, or framed positively, feeling we’d grown. It reminded me of my own past, in more than one way. Just this week I was glancing through old journal entries, thinking to myself, “My my, how could anyone put of with my arrogance?”
It was around that time when I first read Bill Brown’s “Strangers.” I’d worked as an intern at a poetry review just before graduating college, and one snowy afternoon in Poland a couple of years later, I received a package of recent publications from the editors. Among them was The Art of Dying.
|Seventeen split my tongue
like a pet crow’s, shrill,
ignorant, and shamed.
My glances were foul
I ate spaghetti
I measured out love
cracked open my heart
|My hands were foxes,
my thoughts shot blanks,
my smile was as sweet
as plastic grapes.
My dreams were strangers
I was angry at my dead
And one of the strangers
mouth clamped shut,
So as Fr. Boyle spoke, I thought of that poem, thought of the “I” who first read them, how much more like strangers I was compared to him than Brown’s speaker could ever be as a twenty-year-old looking back at his seventeen-year-old self. So many changes that I’m almost embarrassed to meet myself in my journal entries. So full of myself, so sure I was so painfully intelligent, so superior to so many.
And then, out of the blue, I thought of a band that I’d once had a flickering interest in, a band that I bought one single album by and decided instantly that I didn’t really like them at all, began wondering why I even bought the album as the band — the Sugarcubes — never really received much airplay. A little research and I found the “hit” from the album I bought was a little number called “Regina.”
A few clicks on Spotify and I was listening to it again, wondering why in the world I’d bought an album that, as far as I could tell, didn’t have a single redeeming song on it, an album that is to me today a laughable piece of trash. Undoubtedly one of the worst albums ever recorded. But when it came out in ’88 or ’89, I thought it was decent. I tried to like it. I wanted to like it. Part of that was, I guess, not wanting to have the feeling that I wasted money on a CD that I’d never listen to again.
All these things were tumbling around in my head this afternoon when we went out to the park after essentially an entire weekend in the house. A sick mother, a semi-sick daughter, a recovering father, and a boy with a seemingly endlessly running nose simply need to stay inside and rest, but that is ironically tiring. So off we went this afternoon for a little time in a new park. I found myself wondering how I’d view my forty-year-old self in another twenty-five or so years. Would I see myself as I see my late-teen self? My early-twenties self? It seems both likely and impossible.