“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. . .” (Robert Herrick)

rosebudsOne of my students is on the cusp of failing because she has not submitted the longest essay of the semester. The essay is a 10-page expository essay on the work of the French performance artist ORLAN (I’m not shouting—that is legally her name, not Orlan).

I have written many times about ORLAN. I think she’s one of the most fascinating people in the world, and, while Paris is not one of the places I’m anxious to see before I die, I would buy ticket there if I knew I could meet her. The best of my writing about her is from three years ago—best because I am going to get my tattoo either today or tomorrow.

I’d guess most people think ORLAN is crazy or at least has some deep-seated psychological issss-ues that cause her to want to hurt her body. I don’t know. I’d also guess that anyone who is invited to lecture at the University of Nebraska—Nebraska?—can’t be publically certifiable.

I can’t imagine why my student has not finished her essay—she has written one almost-spectacular essay about ORLAN already, and she’s the only one of my students fluent enough in French to read ORLAN’s writings in the original.

I plan to become an authority on ORLAN—perhaps write a book about her after I’m sure I understand Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Maurice Merleu-Ponty, and all of the other (mostly French) thinkers who’ve influenced ORLAN according to C. Jill O’Bryan.

But back to my student. For some reason as I was trying to elicit an email response from her (six of mine to her—with notice requested that they were read) the cliché “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” popped into my head. Not that my class is rosy nice or anything, but she has a chance to get a grade in Discourse 1313 or she will have to take it over. Every student at SMU has to get through a section of Discourse 1313, and I can guarantee her none of the others are as fun as mine (except perhaps the one taught by one of my colleagues with Bart Simpson as its main research topic).

At any rate, I’ll bet almost everyone who might be reading this will be as surprised as I was to discover that “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is the first line of a bona fide poem that could be studied in a section of Discourse 1313 in which students research 17th-century English poetry. What, I’d guess, most people would assume being an academic is all about. Ugh!


But back to my student. Music academia has an honorary fraternity for graduating student musicians. Pi Kappa Lambda. I don’t hold it against Linda that she was the one person from my college graduating class inducted into the fraternity. I think it was because the university knew Frederick Loewe would rather have dinner with her than with me. That’s right. He attended the University of Redlands—never graduated—and gave the School of Music lots of money, and the Pi Kappa Lambda inductee went to Palm Springs for dinner with him.

The Chairman of the School of Music told me one of the reasons they chose Linda over me was that, even though my GPA was high enough to graduate with honors (I didn’t because I didn’t finish my honors research project—do you see where this is going?), the faculty was distressed because they thought I had never worked up to my potential. The example he used was the Advanced Counterpoint class in which all of my work was A-quality, but I earned a B because I submitted nearly every assignment late.

So here’s my very bright, talented student getting ready to blow her chance to be inducted into Pi Kappa Lambda (well, she can’t be because she’s not a musician), and all I can do is sit helplessly by and wish it were not so, and beg her to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

I, of course, am only now submitting her class’s grades because I’m still in the process of grading those essays on ORLAN. I have a reason—I was sick enough to go to bed for four days the week before finals, so I started the process a week behind. I have a good excuse. I wonder what hers is.

I’m not going to get into an orgy of self-flagellating for my regrets. I’ve never been able to get myself organized. There are at least three reasons for that—which I’ve also written about here. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Bipolar II Disorder (diagnosed before it became the disease du jour), and simple lack of understanding the need to be organized Johnny-on-the-spot in this world. Pi Kappa Lambda isn’t the only honor I’ve not been awarded.

What most people probably don’t know (unless they were English majors) is that Herrick’s poem is titled “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” It’s about sowing wild oats—pretty explicitly sexual oats.

Well, I sowed my wild oats—sexual and otherwise—when I was in college. And that’s why I am so grieved by my student’s incipient failure. She would be the last person in my classes I would expect to fail. Bookish. Smart. Inquisitive. Bilingual. Has everything in the world going for her.

One aspect of teaching I will not be sorry to leave behind is the grief—I’m not being hyperbolic or maudlin—I feel every time a student fails. Surely an 18-year-old has plenty of time left to find out how difficult it is to be a human being on this planet. Especially to live in a society in which enough is never enough and too much is simply the incentive to get more.

“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” Robert Herrick, (1591 – 1674)

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying,

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

The prize for winning the prize

The prize for winning the prize

“. . . 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.


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.