A rare and generous student quite unlike any other I have taught in my long life made me a gift of his copy of the latest issue of The New Yorker today, and I spent the next hour (while he and his fellow students labored over essays on Whitman) delighted by some fine writing about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas but completely arrested by an article on Leonard Woolf. I was surprised to notice that I’d never given much thought to Leonard, having devoted considerable attention to Virginia. I thought of him, if at all, simply as Virginia’s caretaker and the co-editor of the Hogarth Press. So this opening quotation from Leonard took me by storm: “Looking back at the age of eighty-eight over the fifty-seven years of my political work in England, knowing what I aimed at and the results, meditating on the history of Britain and the world since 1914, I see clearly that I achieved practically nothing.” He continues, “I must have in a long life ground through between 150,000 and 200,000 hours of perfectly useless work.” Oh God, yes. Leonard Woolf was much more a counter than I am; I have not calculated the number of hours I have spent in perfectly useless work; but I can say without question that it feels to me as though I have ground through 200,000 hours of it, and it lifts my spirits to know that Virginia’s husband felt that way too. There is something perversely cheering about this. So much of what we all do is perfectly useless, which gives us permission to have a much better time doing it, or doing less of it, or escaping from it. If I hadn’t been doing what I was doing, what would I have done? Read all of Proust, perhaps. I still want to do that, and I was reminded of it just today by someone who has not wasted so many years in regular salaried employment as I have. The other thing that delighted me in that article is that Virginia decided to marry this man without knowing how to spell his name. She wrote to a friend, “I’ve got a confession to make. I’m going to marry Leonard Wolf.” How many times have I corrected my students’ misspelling of Virginia Woolf’s name? I find it hilarious that she misspelled it too, and that dovetails with the pointlessness of correcting my students’ spelling, and that leaves me with this pile of Whitman papers to grade: another eight hours of pointlessness, at least. Oh, why did I ask my students to write them? Whitman would have preferred me to send them out to play in the rain. But if I just sent them out to play in the rain, how would I grade them on that, and how would they earn these credits they need to earn in order, they think, to get better jobs and make more money, doing perfectly useless things? I just can’t get the veil of Maya to stay in place today.
Archive for November, 2006
Putting aside all the world issues I cannot help, putting aside my griefs and questions, I walked this morning for a long time in the foggy dew, grateful for what passes for autumn in Texas. Not the spectacular leaf colors of the north; a more subtle shift of season, but beautiful to my eyes, smelling just the way autumn smells everywhere, and for many mild weeks. The sun came up among rosy clouds fading to golden yellow. The Chinaberry trees (as they are known here) are crimson and dotted with round white seeds that look like popcorn. Deciduous trees fade to rust and scatter yellow-brown leaves on the still-green grass. Migrating birds from the north take respite in our gentle mornings and gorge themselves on a plenitude of insects. I am grateful for this place. On the site where I stored my pictures of Portugal, I have uploaded pictures of this place and my family in it. All I feel is gratitude, intense gratitude, gratitude spilling over: for this place, for my little niche in it, for new and old friends, for a lifetime of memories, for the fact that my body and mind are still working well enough for what they need to do, and for the possibility that lies ahead. My son Chris called on Thanksgiving, wondering what lies ahead for me. I told him I’m going to retire from teaching in one more year, but after that I have no idea. He laughed, “That’s you, Mom. Everything is always a surprise. Nothing is ever planned or predictable.” Yes, I laughed, to my son who has lived in Tucson almost every day of his forty years; yes, I laughed, to my son who stayed married to his high school sweetheart for twenty years, till she was so severely addicted to methamphetamines that she endangered their children. Yes, I laughed, with real joy. Everything is always a surprise. He, too, is beginning to appreciate the delights of possibility, the wonder of the unpredictable. We are both grateful for our lives.
Over the American Thanksgiving weekend there has been news: another cease-fire in Gaza, after a sixty-eight-year-old suicide-bomber martyred herself and gave new meaning to the world’s image of grandmotherly. I deplore her attempt to do harm to others, but I respect her nerve. Suicide-bombers, whatever they may be, are not cowards. A BBC news reporter observes that Palestinian women are “taking a more active role” in the conflict. Every time I see the news, I cry. More deaths by the minute in Iraq: parades of people beat their chests in grief, holding coffins aloft against a background of bombed-out buildings and burnt-out cars. Starvation and rape in Darfur, former Russian KGB-man murdered by radioactive material smaller than a sesame seed, more tension in Beirut, quick-stop adoptions of malnourished children in Ethiopia. But lest we despair, there is football, the Macy’s parade, the national dog show. Through it all, Americans celebrate the national day of thanks-giving by shopping and worshipping their gods: one woman who waited in line for thirty-two hours kisses her Playstation 3, sobs for joy, and whispers, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, God, for letting me get my Playstation 3.” A young man who camped for two days on the sidewalk next to an electronic discount store tells the news camera, “It was worth missing Thanksgiving dinner. I got a plasma TV for 50% off!” In a bizarre twist of cultural juxtaposition, a major network plays the movie Family Man, in which viewers are manipulated to “feel good” when a brilliant, promising man and woman sacrifice education, culture, material wealth, exciting careers, and the power to create authentic lives for a conventional life in New Jersey, complete with 2-story house, mini-van, bowling, cocktail parties, and two children: this film interrupted by ads for a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals to help people sleep, calm their “restless legs,” and overcome depression and plaque in their arteries. We are exhorted subliminally to be like everybody else, turn off our minds, go bowling, get drunk, sing karaoke, buy new toys, and take drugs. This afternoon I went to the park and walked off my grief, listening to the rustle of squirrels in fallen leaves, the whirr of insects in the grass, the movement of clouds against the clear blue sky. A line from Whitman which I taught on Monday surfaced in my mind as I walked: “demented with the mania of owning things.” What is the anti-dote to this mania?
In this afternoon’s mail I got a copy of an international journal published in 2002, devoted to “Theatre for Development” in Africa, including an article about my struggles and failures in Lesotho from 1992-94. I wrote the article in the late 90s, while I was working in South Africa, and then forgot about it. Eight years later it has found its way to my mailbox. The article is good-humored and self-deprecating. In it I look back at my ideals as I first arrived in Africa and met the first of the theatre groups I was to lead. “From my book-learning I knew how to label what I was about to do: it would be theatre-for-liberation, not theatre-for-domestication, top-down theatre, or theatre-of-indoctrination. It would come from within the community it was meant to serve; it would be shaped and directed by that community, with skillful intervention from me…. People would flock to see it, would understand and enjoy it, and would be moved and liberated by it. We would begin with information-gathering, discussion, and script-development; then would come workshopping and performance, then followup.” Dear, naive, hopeful, idealistic young Kendall that I was, I really did think it would work. [read on]
As blogging becomes increasingly central to the way I live, I am looking around at other people’s blogs, wondering about other bloggers’ intentions, and realizing that the blogosphere offers me the opportunity to do what I have wanted to do all my life: peer into thousands of people’s living spaces. Sadly, these living spaces are only those of the privileged 1% of humanity who have computers and the time to fool around on them, and most of the blogs of that 1% are not even remotely interesting to me, but access is the first subject I thought about when I opened this blog, so there’s no need to belabor that further. I write today in celebration of an extraordinary blog called Contemplating Sintra, written by a man named Stephen Brody, who has lived in Sintra, Portugal for the past twenty or so years and writes about the town (which my dear readers may recall was my least favorite town in all of Portugal) with love, wit, and often-ascerbic intelligence. If I had read his blog before I went to Portugal, I would have had a completely different (and far more pleasurable) experience in Sintra; but more importantly, reading his blog expands my notion of what a blog can be, and I want to pass that expanded notion on to the four or five people who read this one. [read on]
Thanks to friend & fellow traveler Lari for another response to my Buddhist Doubt. Lari sent me this:
Is easier to claim
She who claims Zen travels light.
Another young woman is ordaining tomorrow as a nun in SuCo Thich Dieu Thien’s order. To celebrate the occasion, a thirty-something English-speaking Vietnamese monk from Michigan has arrived. He, like SuCo, feels his way of teaching is “much faster” and “more useful” than that of Thich Nhat Hanh and “Mindfulness,” which, they say, “only takes you half the way.”
The Michigan-monk lived at the center for several months while I was practicing there in 2005. He sent me, via Kate, an invitation to come to the center for tea and conversation. I figured I was strong enough to handle whatever he wanted to dish out, so I went. When I arrived, he and SuCo were seated at a picnic table visible from the front entryway, so I walked over and joined them. [read on]
Yesterday I went to visit my friend Pho Nguyen (formerly Kate), a Buddhist nun who ordained and lives at the Vietnamese Buddhist center where I studied for a year. Our conversation led me to new clarity about my “issues” with Buddhism. That’s what this blog entry is going to be about, so if the topic doesn’t interest you, feel free to stop now. [read on]