BootsnAll Travel Network

Settling in

I’ve quit kicking things. The fragrances of Portland have worn off my clothes, and I can no longer remember what the cool air feels like. The sand of Muir Beach and the red dirt of Santa Fe have fallen out of my shoes. My molecules are all back in Houston, and I’m OK with that. My little apartment is a comfort and a delight. Basho is my best companion ever. It’s a pleasure to live near Manko and to see her occasionally. I love my friends. Poetry group met last night–our group has been together for nearly four years now. Gallo brought a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that might just be my favorite poem in the world. I’ll put it in here, at the end of this post. And next week Gallo and I return to the prison. I love those guys. What was I complaining about? Whatever it was, it has passed and no longer matters.

I gained weight during the summer. Despite the hard work, I over-ate, both because the food was good and I didn’t have to cook it, and because I was trying to feed myself more energy. I didn’t see a change at the time, but I see it (and feel it) now. I have a belly that fills both my hands when I sit down, and that displeases me. I feel clumsy, and I need to get out and get more exercise–went walking Monday and Tuesday mornings, but Wednesday and today I moved too slowly–by 7 a.m. it’s too hot to do anything outside.

I’m looking forward to the coming semester. I’ll be teaching Bernard Pomerance’s Elephant Man in the drama class, and I love that play. I think all of us who are “different” in some significant way from the majority of people around us can’t help identifying with the main character, and the language of the play is beautiful. The coincidence that the wisdom of the play is embodied in a gorgeous actress named Mrs. Kendal is not wasted on me. The two humanities classes will be full of people whose lives have been mostly barren of anything related to the arts, and the course may open their eyes and minds to the possibilities of something beyond TV and cell phones and video games. Some of them, of course, will be people who already live for art, and they will be the yeast that makes the energy rise. I will send them all out into the world of Houston to discover art they have never imagined before, and they will talk about what they discover that surprises them, and I will love that. In the two American Lit classes I will spend time (again) with some writers who move me.

All five classes are maxed out: 30 in each class, and 31 in one of them, because one of my colleagues has a son he wanted in, so I agreed to take him. We allow 30 people in an English or drama class, because all those classes require extensive one-to-one work (the government classes take 45!). So here comes the gift of 151 people with lives and interests and ways of seeing things or asking questions. Each one will bring something different, and what will that be? I’m curious. Eager, even. I’d certainly rather do this than clean toilets or wash dishes all day, so until I have papers to grade, I will have a good time in this last semester. Perhaps even a wonderful time.

This will be the last time that 151 people sit before me for a whole semester, waiting to see what I have for them, waiting to see how painful or easy or boring or frightening it is going to be to earn three more units of college credit. I will make it as interesting as I can. I will know all their names by the third week, and then I will forget most of their names by the second week after the semester ends. I begin to have gentle butterflies in my stomach, for the how many-th time?–let’s see–I started doing this in 1972. Two semesters every year since then, plus uncountable summer classes. How many times have I done this? And I still get butterflies. Even at Smith, where classes are supposed to be smaller, I sometimes had as few as eleven in a seminar class, but as my reputation grew, I had larger and larger intro classes. By the time I left there, my intro classes had as many as fifty students in them, and the work was killing me. I remember my last semester there–I taught in a large lecture hall in the Music building, and all the seats were full, and there were students sitting on the window ledges and in the aisles. That would have been lovely, but then I had that many papers and projects to grade, and I was also head of the department, and all of that gave me severe migraines.

All this teaching has been wonderful, really, it’s only that there has always been too much of it. If I could have taught half-time at Smith, I could have gone on there, maybe. But then I would have missed the six years in Africa; I wouldn’t have found my daughters and loved them as I do. I wouldn’t have written that book with M’e Mpho. No. Everything happened as it did. I don’t believe it all had to happen, or happened “for the best,” as some say. Bullshit. It was the result of choices. I did what I did, with the help of many others, guided by some kind of intuition. Some of what I did was horribly wrong; there has been grief beyond description, and I have failed in many ways and let people down. Some of my attempts ended in humiliating failure. Heart-break, penury, debt, physical and mental pain of all kinds. It hasn’t all been peonies in May. But then…there have been those peonies in May, and when my face is buried in a peony, that is all there is in the world. My friend Randy, at Smith, said when I resigned, “Don’t do this, Kendall! You’ll end up at bumfuck community college!” I did it, and I ended up where I am. And this is my last semester of teaching in an institutionalized way.

Here is that poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. It seems to me she wrote it for me, at this moment in my life. It speaks for itself. It comes from her book called The Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Eight Mountain Press, 1995).


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Tags: , , ,

-16 responses to “Settling in”

  1. Steve Raymond says:

    Kendall –
    For quite awhile this morning, I have sat quietly in front of my computer’s keyboard, feeling “almost ready to type” … subsequent to reading your recent ‘posts’.
    I hesitate. Wanting to inspect my own motivations, before continuing … “Why respond?” / “why ‘connect’?” . . .
    Because the act of reading your “blog” enriches me; and perhaps saying-so to you will encourage you to continue.
    I am empowered to overcome my own [awful] malaise by knowing how you’ve struggled and overcome your own.
    The World is lucky to have you.
    I feel quite certain that there are more than 151 of us K.-Quest ‘students’ “out here” in the Internet-O-Sphere, learning from your experiences and your accumulated wisdom.
    Thanks for “staring Reality in the face”, from those of us who are still trying to summon up the courage to do so, in our own lives.
    We’ll be reading.

  2. admin says:

    Oh God, Steve, thank you. Tears spring to my eyes in gratitude, and then laughter. Sometimes I feel like a pure damn fool, putting these words up…to what end? I ask myself the same questions you asked yourself before posting a comment. Who cares? Why write another post? why connect? what’s the use? who has time to read this crap? is it just ego-gratification? (There must be better ways. My ego is often embarrassed by all this.) But if there’s any point, it’s to meet others in their (awful) malaises or whatever else (awful or awe-full) they and I may have in common. If it gives you courage, your comments certainly give me courage, so we’re hauling each other up and on, and that can’t be bad, can it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *