“. . . Above the eagle a serpent was coiled about a shield and in the spaces between. . .” (Flannery O’Connor)

. . . interested in] what we don't understand rather than in what we do . . .

. . . interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . .

A couple of days ago when I showed up at Tigger’s Body Art studio in Dallas to have my tattoo finished, the young clerk greeted me by name. Two tattoos, and they know me because I’m the only person they’ve ever tattooed with a snippet of medieval music on his arm. A 69-year-old codger at that.

As I have told students repeatedly through the past fifteen years, one cannot conflate a writer’s discussion of (or creation of) fiction with what one knows from real life—either one’s own or someone else’s.

However,
. . . if the [fiction] writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious . . . then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself . . . pushing [fiction’s] own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because . . . the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. . . . [The writer is interested in] what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . . in possibility rather than in probability. . . in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. (O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” Mystery and Manners.)

In O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back,” Parker is a young man covered in tattoos.

Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot . . . a single intricate design of brilliant color . . . [The] arabesque of men and bears and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. . . Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed . . . a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed. (O’Connor, Flannery. “Parker’s Back.” Everything that Rises Must Converge, 1964.)

This is tricky. Merely three weeks ago I was tattooed for the first time. I did not see a tattooed man in a fair. I first read “Parker’s Back” in the summer of 1973 (give or take a year). I have read the story probably 25 times since then. I don’t know why I wanted a tattoo. It’s not Flannery O’Connor’s fault.

I first contemplated a tattoo in the late ‘80s. A friend had tattoos I thought were exceptionally attractive—Greek key designs covering his shoulder and biceps. The day I had my ear pierced, I was with him, and somehow my “body modification” has always felt incomplete without a tattoo. Don’t ask me why. I wrote about it on February 16, 2011.

Like my friend's Greek keys

Like my friend’s Greek keys

Again, don’t ask me why. I don’t know why. I am not, like O’Connor’s Parker, “filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes” when I think of having one myself. I do live most of the time with a sense of “wonder in [my]self,” with an understanding that there is something “out of the ordinary about the fact that [I exist].”

It is possible that a church organist, a college professor, or a steel worker (another secret—no, I’ve written about it several times here) would want a tattoo. (I first read “Parker’s Back” sitting hour after hour in the Kaiser shipping office.)

Life imitating art. “The meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology . . . have been exhausted.” Writing such a story “a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . . in possibility rather than in probability. . .” For such a writer “what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself.”

We engage ourselves in therapy, study Frankl and Heidegger, Freud, Jung, and Dr. Phil, attend 12-step meetings, and try myriad other analytical or self-help activities to discover “who we are.”

Or we avoid that complicated and not-very-fulfilling process altogether and simply adopt a belief, religious or otherwise, to explain our existence to ourselves and to others.

And we are left with—I think, if we’re really being honest—the nagging suspicion (no, the absolute certainty) that we don’t know where we came from, why we do what we do while we’re here, and where we will go when we die.

Let’s say my getting a tattoo serves the same purpose as someone else believing for the sake of political expedience that human life begins at conception. The anti-abortion crowd have invented a belief that explains to them where they came from. They hang onto that belief so they don’t have to think about where they will go when they die. It’s all tidied up.

Perhaps I have discovered a way to feel as if I have some control over my body, to shape it in my own image, to help me think about or avoid thinking about where I came from and where I will go. If one knows with absolute certainty where they came from, one can assume one knows where they are headed. You believe absolutely that life begins with conception, and I’ll be interested in “what we don’t understand rather than in what we do.”

One thing seems undeniable: the human desire to fight death wherever possible is too deeply rooted to be eradicated in any way. Body modification, plastic surgery, and the attempt to shape our bodies in the image of our desires to me seems one of the more benign manifestations of the denial of death compared with the horrors of war and subjugation of those who think differently (Strenger, Carlo. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality 10.3 (2009): 166-171).

Besides, my tattoo looks groovy.

A Medieval snippet

A Medieval snippet

The Last Lecture in Highland Park

Joseph-Campbell-Quotes-1

May, 5, 2014
Southern Methodist University
MY LAST LECTURE
to the students in Discovery and Discourse 1313, Sections 27, 28, 29, and 30
Harold A. Knight, PhD

The academic year 1963-1964, was momentous in a way that few others have been since. The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated here in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Less than three months later, on February 9, 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, their first live appearance in the United States.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy changed American politics forever, and the arrival of the Beatles changed American music—both popular and classical–forever. But my intention is not to talk about music or politics.

That academic year was also momentous because it was my first year in college. I left home late in August, boarding a bus at the Greyhound terminal in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, and riding three days to San Bernardino, California, where a station wagon (not an SUV!!!) from the University of Redlands was waiting to take me the twenty miles to Redlands.

I had been to California once on a family vacation in 1953, but I had never been to Redlands.

That back story is necessary for me to make sense of what I want to tell you. My choice of the University of Redlands was virtually the roll of the dice. I had been accepted other places, but my senior English teacher told me that I needed to go to Redlands because it was the farthest from Omaha.

Until that time, I had planned to enroll at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where I was guaranteed a full tuition scholarship because of my scores on statewide exams. I was going to major in English and concentrate in creative writing. I planned to take organ lessons on the side to progress in my favorite hobby.

But here’s what really happened. When I registered to take organ lessons at the University Of Redlands School Of Music, I had to audition to be assigned a teacher. I played the G major “Gigue” fugue by Bach from memory. Immediately the Chairman of the School of Music and head of the organ department offered me a scholarship to make up the difference between what I had already been given and full tuition if I would be an organ performance major. My ego could not refuse. And so I became a music major instead of a creative writing major.

What bliss to play the organ here.

University of Redlands Chapel: What bliss to play the organ here.

It might seem that I let others, authority figures, make important decisions for me. I don’t think I did so any more than 18-year-olds generally do. In 1963 I had no driving passion. I did not know—in terms I later learned from the great teacher of spirituality, Joseph Campbell—what my “bliss” was, much less how to follow it. By “bliss” Campbell meant that which fills one with joy and gives meaning and purpose to one’s life.

I want to read Joseph Campbell’s admonition.

“Follow your bliss.
If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

For much of my life I have not followed my bliss.

I have not followed a straight-forward path. My life has been mostly a great series of detours. In that academic year 1963-1964 I think it is fair to say I had no concept of a trajectory for my life. I had no idea what I wanted to be if I ever grew up.

I still don’t.

I do not regret any of the decisions I have made that led me to the place where I am now. I do—even though Charles Schwab says I should not—ask myself, “How did I get here?”

We all have to figure out how certain personal idiosyncrasies affect our decisions and our lives. Now is not the time to talk about mine, except to say that I’ve done pretty well considering some difficulties I’ve had to overcome—all centered in my brain. The particular demons of my life are Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Bipolar disorder, and alcoholism. That’s all I will say about that except that discovering and naming them so I could deal with them took too much of my energy until I was forty years old. In some ways I allowed them to keep me from discovering my bliss so I could follow it.

When I was twenty-nine years old, I finally made the decision to try to fulfill the promise of my undergraduate education and earn a PhD in Organ Literature at the University of Iowa. That meant quitting a well-paying but tedious job that I hated–how I hated it!–selling my house in Upland, California, and moving with my (late ex-) wife halfway across the country.

Shortly after I made the decision, I had a conversation with an uncle in which we talked about my pending move.
He asked me, “Do you mean you think you have the right to give up everything and move to Iowa so you can make a living doing what you want to do?” He had been stuck in a high-powered, enormously lucrative job that he hated his entire life and could not imagine chucking everything to follow what I thought at the time was my bliss.

I thought I could, and I did.

The convoluted story by which I ended up teaching First-year writing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas is too boring to tell here, except to say that it involved a seventeen-year sojourn in Boston—for which I am grateful—a story which began by my thinking that having found HIM, and I would be happy divorcing my wife and moving the rest of the way across the country to live with him.

It was neither the first nor the last time I made a life-changing decision based on my confusing fun, momentary happiness, and self-centeredness for my BLISS. My move to Dallas to be with my partner (not the HIM of my first move) was fortunately a rational decision that set me on a path much more likely to help me follow my bliss. I came to Dallas in 1994 both to be with my partner and to work on another PhD, this one finally in creative writing. I discovered after passing the comprehensive exams that I did not need a second PhD, but that work enabled my being hired to teach English at SMU.

When I moved to Dallas, I also found a position as music director at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch.

My partner died in 2004—five years after I began teaching at SMU. St. Paul Lutheran closed in 2010.

Today marks the end of my formal teaching career. My 3 PM class today will be my last at SMU.

I’m giving this lecture for a couple of reasons. The first is purely selfish. I believe that changes like the one I am making today need to be marked, to be celebrated, definitively. I need to put a period on this chapter of my life.
That’s not quite as self-centered as it may seem.

The second reason is to say something to you that you probably can’t really hear today, but that you may remember sometime along the path and know that you are not alone on that path.

Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.
Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.
Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.

I’m sure that for most of you, finding your bliss means making piles of money, or being famous, or both. Making piles of money is not a bad thing, but it cannot be your bliss. Your bliss has to be something that goes on in your head, and in the life of your emotions.

Money, even billions of dollars, cannot be your bliss.
Period.

I love Alice Walton—you know, owner with her siblings of Walmart. She is, according to Forbes Magazine, the eighth richest person in America, worth $33.5 billion. She’s taken a few millions of her dollars and created the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, a truly wondrous place with a breathtaking collection of American art—free and open to the public. And you can take pictures of the art—unlike all other museums.

But the most famous photograph of Alice is the mug shot taken one of the times she was arrested for drunk driving in Ft. Worth. I think I can say—being a drunk in recovery myself—with some authority that I doubt her billions have insured that she’s following her bliss.

Money, even billions of dollars, cannot be your bliss.

Poetry might be a good bliss to follow.
Or the symphonies of Mozart.
Or the music of the Beatles.
Or the eternal attempt to answer once for all whether or not JFFK’s assassination was a conspiracy.
Or building a robot that will give the blind their sight.
Or singing in the opera Fidelio.
Or finding the “God particle.”
Or living passionately with the love of your life for fifty years.
My bliss is partly reading weird stuff about strange subjects such as ORLAN, the role of American fundamentalist Christians in the shaping of the absurd US policy toward Israel and Palestine, or Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.
My bliss is playing the organ. (I have a pipe organ in my living room).
My bliss is trying to help college students discover something they might never have known if I hadn’t helped them along the way.

And that brings me to my real bliss.

My bliss is loving other people. I don’t know how to show it most of the time. I’ve really botched most of my relationships. I haven’t had a primary relationship for ten years—whatever that says. But in two weeks I’m going to have a retirement party, and thirty people will be there, most of whom will know only five or so of the others. And they are all people I love. Christians, Muslims, atheists. Intellectuals, scholars, plumbers, office administrators. Old people, young people.

You can do much worse than making your bliss simply trying to feel and think positively about everyone you meet. And being kind. Always being kind.

My long-distance cyber friend, the poet Michael Blumenthal, wrote a poem which I’m going to pass out to you when I finish. It’s called simply, “Be Kind.” Here’s a bit of it.

Abe and Me

Abe and Me

Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness and uncertainty of
its recompense. . . why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail?
. . . in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled. . .

By following my bliss I have learned something about poetry, and I know you have to know what a hedgehog is to understand this poem. Hedgehogs are furry little mammals who, when they are threatened, roll themselves up into little balls, and their fur becomes almost as prickly as a porcupine.

You will not find your bliss by rolling yourself into a ball and hurting anyone who tries to come too close.

Do you want to know why I love the work of Flannery O’Connor and ORLAN so much? O’Connor wrote stories about what happens when people become hedgehogs—or, conversely, when they refuse to become hedgehogs or learn not to be.

ORLAN has lived her life doing things that no sane person would do, we think. But she is the farthest thing from a hedgehog. She’s out there on the edge showing us how to be both narcissistic and totally transparent at the same time.

As all of you know, Don Siegel warned us, talking about his wonderfully bizarre little film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers,

People are pods. . . They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep. To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger, the spark has left you. . . of course, there’s a very strong case for being a pod. These pods, who get rid of pain, ill-health and mental disturbances are, in a sense, doing good. It happens to leave you in a very dull world but that, by the way, is the world that most of us live in.

It’s easy to be judgmental. Donald Stirling is a pod. Alice Walton is a pod.
Oh, come on. We all have the potential to be pods.
Just don’t.
Find your bliss.

That’s the best I can do—quote someone else. But I have only a few years left to find my bliss. I’m still trying to make sure, as Joseph Campbell said, that “the life [I] ought to be living is the one [I am] living.” If I can be on that path in my 70th year, I beg you to start now.

You’ve got only 50 years left to find your bliss.

“Be Kind,” by Michael Blumenthal
Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet wander
into a bush before our very houses,
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there’s
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one, so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not
make it the happiest possible dust,
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked
witches of our childhood have died and,
from where they are buried, a great kindness
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course,
in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses,
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.

“. . . the mystery. . . of a demon in my view.” (Edgar Allan Poe)

When I care to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision – then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid (Audre Lorde, 1934 – 1992).

A necessary tack

A necessary tack

In teaching writing, i.e. rhetoric, we often resort to poor old Aristotle to try to get students to understand they have to use many different approaches in order to be convincing. One of our favorite tacks (“tack” as a nautical term, “a course run obliquely against the wind”)—yes, “tack” is an appropriate word here because we run obliquely against the wind—is to present the students with Aristotle’s three “appeals” for making an argument. Logos, ethos, and pathos.

Logos, we say, is akin to our word “logic,” but not directly. It’s more than logic.
Ethos, we say, is an appeal to the writer’s credibility.
Pathos, we say, is an attempt to involve our audience’s emotions in our argument.

Or something like that.

Of course, any student who has either received such instruction or who has a modicum of inquisitiveness on their own will realize we have many common and useful words that come, if not directly from these Greek words, at least from the same roots.

pathetic (adj.)

           1590s, “affecting the emotions, exciting the passions,” from Middle French pathétique “moving, stirring, affecting” (16c.), from Late Latin patheticus, from Greek pathetikos “subject to feeling, sensitive, capable of emotion,” from pathetos “liable to suffer,” verbal adjective of pathein “to suffer” (see pathos). Meaning “arousing pity, pitiful” is first recorded 1737. Colloquial sense of “so miserable as to be ridiculous” is attested from 1937. Related: Pathetical (1570s); pathetically. Pathetic fallacy (1856, first used by Ruskin) is the attribution of human qualities to inanimate objects. (Harper, Douglas. “pathetic.” Online Etymology Dictionary. etymonline.com. 2001-2014. Web.)

Every time I need to write about my depression, I feel pathetic in the colloquial sense from 1937. Like everyone who struggles with depression and writes or paints or sings or dances or just talks with their friends I want to make the definitive statement what it feels like to be depressed so the rest of you will understand and not think we are “so miserable as to be ridiculous.”

If you are still reading, you are obviously not one of my f2f friends or relatives (or one of my “followers” here) who have heard all of this before and are really really really tired of it. Some readers who are frightened by my being so open about depression all the time have stopped reading because they are not brave. I apologize to them that I am so persistent in talking about depression. I am not going to go the next necessary step in apology and tell them how I will modify my behavior in the. I will write about this again.

Two days ago I had the wonderful (expand that word beyond triteness and overuse to making “full of wonder”) experience of talking with a student until she discovered the meaning of the word “mystery” in the lexicon of Flannery O’Connor’s writing.

Bringer of jollity

Bringer of jollity

Yesterday I had the wonderful (expand that word beyond triteness and overuse to making “full of wonder”) experience once again of talking with students until they stumbled upon meanings of various concepts about which my classes are writing.

I CANNOT—ever, under any circumstance—TELL YOU THE JOY those experiences bring me. They are the stuff of the reason I live. I thank the gods for those experiences over the past 40 years.

I left my office at 5:15 PM yesterday (having invited students to come to talk between 3 and 4). I sang all the way to my car.

By the time I arrived home (a trip of about 14 minutes, give or take a few seconds), I was in tears.

You can say my tears were understandable in light of my impending (forced) retirement. WTF, I’m 69—it’s time to retire!

But they continued. I was weepy and angry and miserable until I went to a recovery meeting at 7. I was OK for awhile, even long enough to have supper with a friend afterward. By the time I arrived home at 9:30 I was crying again.

I woke up this morning in tears.

That is not the result of my grief at ending my professional life. Otherwise it would have not been a regular experience for the last 60 years, would it?

We all know the medical causes of depression. (A search in the EBSCO data base, Academic Search Complete, through SMU’s library website for “clinical depression” brings up 213,458 articles.)

This is pathetic.

I broke into tears yesterday on my way to my 2 PM class. How cool is that for a professor to be walking across campus crying?

When I care to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision. . .

I have cared all my life to use my strength in the service of my vision. I have had two lifetimes of vision—one as a church (and perhaps recital) organist, the other as a writer and teacher of writing. I’ve had two lifetimes separated by several years of falling-down-drunk-driving-the-wrong-way-on-the-freeway alcoholism (sober for 27 years). I have cared to use my strength in the service of my vision.

I’m not going to blame constant clinical depression (I believe it had begun by the time our family doctor prescribed medication for thyroid deficiency when I was in fourth grade because I was so lethargic I had become a chubby little boy) for my failure to record the complete organ works of Frescobaldi or write the Great American Novel or explain the poetry of Maxine Kumin to the world. Or for my being a drunk.

But being in tears for the better part of 18 hours now is not normal. And it’s a damned nuisance when you’re trying to type. I wish I had Edgar Allan Poe’s genius. Then perhaps I could explain this to you, dear, kind, long-suffering reader.

“Alone,”  by Edgar Allan Poe

A demon in his view?

A demon in his view?

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were–I have not seen
As others saw–I could not bring
My passions from a common spring–
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow–I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone–
And all I lov’d–I lov’d alone–
Then–in my childhood–in the dawn
Of a most stormy life–was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still–
From the torrent, or the fountain–
From the red cliff of the mountain–
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold–
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by–
From the thunder, and the storm–
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view–

“. . . the longing for God is a prayer said in the bones. . .”

Yesterday I wrote of the unexpectedly strong life of the feelings old folks discover in themselves. “Weeping may indeed endure for a night,” but we don’t yet know if “joy cometh in the morning” as the writer of Psalm 30 asserts.

No longer in the way of asking. . .

No longer in the way of asking. . .

A few hours after I wrote I was in my office talking with students. A young woman brought the first joy of the afternoon. I was able to help her see that what Flannery O’Connor speaks of as “mystery” is not the Sherlock Holmes suspense of “what will happen next?” or “who is the murderer?” O’Connor’s mystery is one in which the writer

. . .  believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, [in which] he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, [and] what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted (O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1960).

The student with great wonder asked, “Then the mystery is why the people in the story do what they do?” Yes. The mystery in the story.

The meaning of my story “does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted.”

Would O’Connor have been appalled at my applying her understanding of fiction to my own (non-fiction?) life? I think not. She would have said that the writer of this kind of mystery must have experienced it in their own life, or they could not know to write it.

It is the mystery that “does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted.”

This is the stuff of great fiction because it is the stuff of our lives.

". . . she composes her rickety grocery cart of a body. . . "

“. . . she composes her rickety grocery cart of a body. . . “

What adequately explains the life of my feelings and/or actions? I’ve been in therapy of one sort or another virtually non-stop since about 1970. I know myself (at least in clinical, pathological terms) about as well as my poor limited brain can know. I even know a little of why I cried for about six hours yesterday.

Really.

Of course, if the doctors had been less excited about a patient with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and focused instead on the Bipolar II Disorder that, once diagnosed, was obvious for anyone to see, I’d have saved much time and money.

But even those amorphous, but correct diagnoses do not—not even close—begin to explain who I am and the mystery of my “existing in a created order to whose laws [I] freely respond.” My brain for some reason misfires (electrical some impulses fire differently from most of the rest of you). So?

That in no way explains my response to the “created order to whose laws” we all respond with our own peculiar set of actions and reactions.

Now, don’t get all Freudian or Jungian or Frankl-ian, or even Dr. Oz-ian on me. Or analyze away if you want. See if that gets you any closer to the mystery of who I am. Or who you are, for that matter.

I wrote yesterday about singing hymns (because I’ve played them on the organ all my life, and they are the music within reach when I want music in my mind rather than ruminations on why a university that can raise One Billion Dollars one year needs to cut budgets the next) and quoting Psalm 30, and being aware with overwhelming grief of the horrors to which human beings subject each other. One of the writers whose blog I love to read and with whom I carry on a cyber-exchange commented on my post,

Singing hymns, quoting Psalms, and weeping over human suffering and folly. Has anyone suggested that your life is becoming increasingly more God-haunted?

My response was, “Still.”

Dr. Howland, Dr. Weinberg, Dr. Bret, Dr. Schomer, Dr. Agostini, and all the other psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists who’ve had a crack at explaining my brain have not yet given me a hint as to the mystery of who I am and why or how I [exist] in a created order to whose laws [I] freely respond.

Don’t get all squirrelly on me and raise the silly debate about evolution versus creationism or the big bang versus God. Believe in Jesus or believe Richard Dawkins. Just don’t bother me with it.

On May 5 of this year I will teach my last class as a full-time practitioner of my profession. I will no longer be able to say I am Professor Knight of the Discovery and Discourse program in the English Department at Southern Methodist University.

It breaks my heart.

It leaves me at sea to think about it.

What is the mystery of who I am that insists that part of me IS that professor? Everything about this experience is mysterious to me. I had no idea I cared so deeply about teaching. I

". . . as though someone has cornered them, giving it all away. . ."

“. . . as though someone has cornered them,
giving it all away. . .”

had no idea I could be as frightened as I am pondering not being a part of any institution. This is not simply fear of insecurity—although it is that. It is the profoundest fear of asking the question, now that there is little else to do—no responsibility to get in the way—“Who am I?”

I stumbled upon this poem yesterday. It has nothing to do with psychology or religion or philosophy or politics or science. It says at least some of what I’ve been trying to say here.

“Speaking in Tongues,” by Mary Rose O’Reilley 

I go to church every Sunday
though I don’t believe a word of it,
because the longing for God
is a prayer said in the bones.

When people call on Jesus
I move to a place in the body
where such words rise,
one of the valleys
where hope pins itself to desire;
we have so much landscape like that
you’d think we were made
to sustain a cry.

When the old men around me
lift their hands
as though someone has cornered them,
giving it all away,
I remember a dock on the estuary,
watching a heron get airborne against the odds.
It’s the transitional moment that baffles me—
how she composes her rickety
grocery cart of a body
to make that flight.

The pine siskin, stalled on a windy coast,
remembers the woods
she will long for when needs arise; so
the boreal forest composes itself in my mind:
first as a rift, absence,
then in a tumble of words
undone from sense, like the stutter
you hear  when somebody falls
over the cliff of language.  Call it a gift.
(O’Reilley, Mary Rose. “Speaking in Tongues.” Half Wild: Poems. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.)

“. . . to show the grotesque nature of society’s beliefs about women’s beauty. . .”

Orlan. The grotesque, or. . .

Orlan. The grotesque, or. . .

Yesterday a student came to my office to talk about her final writing assignment–from last semester! She took an incomplete in December so she could go home to be with her family as they sorted out a trauma that no family should—but very few families don’t—experience. The violence to her family happened the last week of last semester.

I assume all of her professors did what they could to ease the burden that had fallen on her. I knew that giving her time to finish her work was the only legitimate response to her situation. Twenty years ago I would have reacted the same, I am sure.

However, my response was based on a very different premise than it would have been twenty years ago. Twenty years ago I would have imagined I had the ability (the power?) to help rescue this young woman from the horrible ordeal she and her family were experiencing. However, neither in December nor yesterday did I have any illusion that I could make anything right for her. The only thing in my power to do was to help her understand the writing assignment she needed to finish in order to change her incomplete grade to a letter grade.

And be kind.

And let her know that what she was doing was perfectly acceptable both to the university and to me. And to check once more to be sure that she had followed through with the counseling from the university’s student life center that I had helped her arrange. What we were doing was totally about her and her work. I did not need to tell her anything about my own personal experience of the kind of trauma she had experienced, was still experiencing. I did not need to try to fix anything. All I needed to do was be open and as generous as it is possible for a professor to be.

Her essay is a two-part study of the work of Orlan, the French performance artist. The first part is research—to write a description of Orlan’s work and discuss Orlan’s ultimate “project.”  The second part is to write an argument either pro or con for the proposition that Orlan’s artistic work is “grotesque.” The topic of my seminars in Discovery and Discourse is “writing about the grotesque,” and the students write about short fiction in light of Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” They also write about the 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The work on Orlan is the culmination of this thinking about what makes a work of art “grotesque.”

I was prepared to read the last of 60 essays from the semester arguing that “Orlan’s work is/is not grotesque because – – – “ I was dumbfounded to read, “Orlan’s project is to show the grotesque nature of society’s beliefs about women’s beauty – – -“

In nine semesters of using the topic of the “grotesque” for my classes’ writing and researching, I have not read another paper in which the student turned the proposition on its head. The grotesquery has nothing to do with Orlan; rather, society’s almost universal understanding of beauty for women is grotesque.

The student was, in fact, using the academic assignment to work through and talk about the trauma of her family. And doing it brilliantly. Her essay will be one of the two I submit for publication in our department’s annual journal.

. . . the grotesque?

. . . the grotesque?

To have drawn the conclusion I did about my interaction with the student is perhaps self-serving. But my conclusion is this. My willingness to give the student a tiny (one hour!) bit of extra help, simply to be kind, and to help her summon the courage to seek the professional help she needs gave her the freedom to use a purely academic assignment to begin to work through what had happened to her.

I did not talk with her about the importance of what she has written, but I will find a way to discuss it when she comes back for the final review of her essay.

My response as a 69-year-old and what might have been my response as a 49-year-old may not on the surface seem different. But when I was 49, I would have been sure that I was supposed to DO something, that the result was up to me. That, from the goodness of my heart and my concern about the student would come some wonderful result for her.

But today I know that simply being where I am supposed to be, doing what I am trained, paid, and expected to do, and doing that with compassion and concern is enough. Watching the student think through a topic from a new perspective, and knowing she will be OK in spite of her almost impossibly difficult situation is my reward—for doing my job.

“. . . and dangerous badgers like dignitaries stare. . . “ (*)

Dangerous dignitaries stare

Dangerous dignitaries stare

My writing is dangerous. No, silly. It’s mere “oily palaver” to you (I wish I could remember who said that phrase in my presence many years ago, said it in such a way that I have remembered it since).

I have been to the Providence Zoo to see the badgers. It’s officially the Roger Williams Park Zoo. Named after Roger Williams, contrary to popular belief the only one of the “founding fathers” who came to the New World to find religious freedom. Don’t believe it when Tea Baggers tell you this country was founded on religious freedom—it was founded, except for Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, on the desire of various groups to live in places they controlled under rules that reflected their personal beliefs, rules they forced everyone to live by.

If The Massachusetts Bay Colony had had anything like religious freedom, they would not have expelled Roger Williams, and he would not have founded Rhode Island with the understanding that  “. . . .it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries. . . . [“Turkish,” of course, here meaning “Muslim] (1).

I’ve written about all of this many times, so that’s not what I’m up to this morning.

No, I’m simply admitting that my writing is dangerous to me—and, perhaps, to a few acquaintances whom I quote and mention. I’ve assumed ever since I wrote a blog posting about my friend Mufid Abdulqader in 2007 that what I post electronically in any format is (or used to be) of some mild passing interest to the NSA or the DHSS. I suppose that’s delusional thinking about my own importance, but I’m not sure. The younger half-brother of the head of Hamas is certainly a person of interest (he’s now in federal prison for something like 150 years, convicted of being a “terrorist,” which is a loose translation of “working on behalf of Palestinians attempting to live in freedom in their own homeland”).

So when I mention you in a post here, you can bet the NSA is watching you.

Make us some money, guys.

Make us some money, guys.

Of course, they are watching you anyway. I and my writing have nothing to do with it. You gave up your rights to “freedom of association” and “freedom of the press” and “freedom of speech” when you let your Congressmegalomaniac vote for the so-called “Patriot Act.” You let the Congressmegalomaniacs strip you of any right to privacy when you let them hoodwink you into being terrorized by your own shadow and let the Congressmegalomaniacs give the terrorism industry control over your lives—the same Congressmegalomaniacs who have now shut down the government and are about to destroy the world economy. How is it working out for you that you’ve let the Congressmegalomaniacs take over your life?

But I digress.

A student in one of my “Discovery & Discourse” classes (yes, “D&D”—and the university after two years of it still doesn’t see why that’s funny) wrote the following in his essay on the Flannery O’Connor short story “Parker’s Back.” (The specific topic of my course is “Writing About the Grotesque.”)

O’Connor shows in “Parkers Back” through the ideas of the grotesque that everyday experiences people live, they never notice their own reality. People ignore the truth and create what truth is giving everything in life a wide spectrum of truths, making life itself grotesque (2).

The student’s essay is, quite frankly, virtually unfathomable. His writing is confused and totally out of control. I’m pretty sure most of my colleagues would have struggled through reading it and put some kind of D or F grade on it and told him to get an appointment at the Writing Center before he submits his next essay.

But I think his writing is pure poetry, and any teacher who would not spend enough time to comprehend his writing does not deserve to be in the classroom.

He understands O’Connor’s theory of mystery and the grotesque.

Everyday people experience the ideas of the grotesque,
and, thus, they never notice their own reality.
People ignore the [real] truth and create the truth
that they believe is giving everything in their lives a wide spectrum of truths,
thereby making life itself grotesque
.

What “truth” are we creating that we firmly, and with every fiber of our being, believe is broadening out for us into a wide spectrum of truths? (The Patriot Act, government shutdown, the Second Amendment, Debt ceiling crisis, racism—shall I continue?) We’ve made this grotesquery, not our Congressmegalomaniacs. We’ve just asked them to do it for us.

A throwaway member of a university football team can see it better than you and I can. Taken all together we have less sense than a flamingo “eat[ing] upside-down, by dragging his tremendous head through streams.” Or two tortoises “one push[ing] the other over the grass, their hemispheres clicking, on seven legs in toto.” Or “vigilant lemurs, wrens and prestidigitating tamarins.”

The university uses the student to bring in TV money and this year One Billion Dollars from alumni (I kid you not). Far better the university should discover its own “wide spectrum of truths” and understand we are ignoring truth while our “dangerous dignitaries stare at one another like badgers.”

____________(1) Williams, Roger. The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience Discussed; and Mr. Cotton’s Letter Examined and Answered (1644). New York: Hard Press Editions, 2012. (2) I won’t cite the source because I don’t have the student’s permission to quote him.

Roger Williams. "Let the Muslims in."

Roger Williams. “Let the Muslims in.”

.
.
.
(*) At the Providence Zoo
      by Stephen Burt  (b. 1971)
Like the Beatles arriving from Britain,
the egret’s descent on the pond
takes the reeds and visitors by storm:
it is a reconstructed marsh
environment, the next
best thing to living out your wild life.
*
Footbridges love the past.
And like the Roman questioner who learned
“the whole of the Torah while standing on one leg,”
flamingos are pleased to ignore us. It is not known
whether that Roman could learn to eat upside-down,
by dragging his tremendous head through streams.
*
Comical, stately, the newly-watched tortoises
mate; one pushes the other over the grass,
their hemispheres clicking, on seven legs
in toto. Together they make
a Sydney opera house,
a concatenation of anapests, almost a waltz.
*
Confined if not preserved,
schoolteachers, their charges, vigilant lemurs, wrens
and prestidigitating tamarins,
and dangerous badgers like dignitaries stare
at one another, hot
and concave in their inappropriate coats.
Having watched a boa
eat a rat alive,
the shortest child does as she was told?
looks up, holds the right hand
of the buddy system, and stands,
as she explains it, “still as a piece of pie.”

––http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16843

Is home really where the heart is?

Serious drama???

Serious drama???

Teachers are—at any rate they should be—wary of talking about, much less posting for the NSA to read on the internet, what happens in their classes. I’m wary but not deterred.

I assigned my classes Flannery O’Connor’s essay, “Some aspects of the grotesque in Southern literature” as the reading for yesterday after they had read her story, “Parker’s Back.”

O’Connor’s essay is at the same time universally applicable to literature and extremely dated and (obviously) sociologically specific. She was a “southern lady” who died just at the dawn of the civil rights movement (1964). She was also an anomaly, a devout Roman Catholic from the Baptist South, and a student of human nature who saw and wrote about the absolute sameness of all people. Her fiction presupposes racism and segregation; she most definitely understood that all people are created equal, but her letters and other writings are confusing about her actual views on race. Read her story, “The Artificial Nigger” and try to figure out her understanding.

I asked my classes to think about the social milieu of Georgia (where she spent most of her life) in the 1950s and the differences between that time and the now. They have a superficial but remarkably informed (I, as an amateur observer, not a scholar or authority on such things, would say) view of the civil rights movement and the changes in Southern culture (and Northern culture) since O’Connor wrote.

In one class we had a short (three or four sentences) but significant exchange about the necessity for a writer to use material from her

Outside the walls?

Outside the walls?

own time and place in fiction in order to make it “real,” that is, “believable” as O’Connor says all good fiction must be at its core. Even her characters who have “ecstatic” religious experiences are recognizable and realistic. The students agreed that a sense of reality is necessary for literature to give the reader any understanding of herself.

Our conversation stuck in my mind and prompted me to think about my adjustment to living in some of the most disparate areas of our country. I used to say (quite recently, to be honest) I have lived in Dallas since 1994 and am still in culture shock. I moved here from Boston. What I don’t say, of course, is that having grown up in Nebraska and spent my young adulthood first in California and then in Iowa, I was in culture shock for the entire 17 years I lived in the Boston area.

Stir in a bit of the disconnectedness of my being gay in a basically straight culture (the progress toward gay marriage rights does not in any way change the fact that being gay is to live as an “outsider” (a “pagan” in the early Latin sense of the word), and I can honestly say I am often unsure exactly what my culture is.

(Note: My knowledge of pop culture is decidedly limited, but if you think LGBT folks do not live as outsiders, you are welcome to point out to me one serious—as opposed to comedic—portrayal of the main character(s) in a TV drama in a committed LGB or T relationship shown with the same care and “reality” as straight couples are shown universally.)

As luck (or God or serendipity or synchronicity or chance or fate or whatever you might want to call it) would have it, my thinking yesterday about my lack of mooring in a “culture” was given a jump start this morning when a daily “meditation” (yes I am on a quest) I subscribe to included these observations.

I will look for and create places in my life where I feel seen and understood for who I am. . . . If I am constantly misread and misunderstood somewhere, I will go elsewhere to see if I am understood there. I cannot come to see and understand myself if I am misunderstood and accused of being other than who I think and feel myself to be. . . . I will go crazy trying to get approval where it is constantly withheld. I need not overreact and run away in horror, but I definitely owe it to myself to [come to understand that] [t]he truest home that I have is within me. . . .

My meandering from Douglas to Worland, WY; from Kearney to Scottsbluff to Omaha, NE; from Redlands to Ontario to Upland, CA; from Iowa City, IA, to Methuen, MA; from there to Beverly, to Salem, MA; and from The Bay State to Dallas, TX, has not been a conscious and deliberate journey to find the “home that I have within me.” But I have arrived at a place where I can create a situation in which a young black football player from Houston can have a discussion with a young white woman from Atlanta about how one finds one’s true self, based on the academic process of trying to understand a work of literature.

Can this be where my heart is?

Can this be where my heart is?

My task at this juncture is to learn that the home I have within me is secure enough to allow me to teach in that way. I do not need—no matter how much I crave—approval (much less “love” as O’Connor’s poor old Parker learns) from university deans or anyone else. I pray I will discover before I die that that is a joyful discovery and not a lonely and painful one.

(Disclaimer: I know this is not an attempt at humor. I wonder sometimes if people know when I’m trying to make jokes and when I’m not. It is, however, about senescence.)