This Assignment is So Gay, Plus Also Some Notes on Disease and Mortality and Parents

This post is supposed to be about the really exciting poetry anthology that was just released, in which I have three poems. And it will be. But not in any kind of straight line. We have a bit of a tangle to get through first.

It’s time to start teaching again soon. I’ve been working on my syllabus (in fact, I should be working on my syllabus right now), making sure that my calendar is in order, and generally preparing.

It hasn’t been an easy summer. I had such clear plans for myself this summer, and had begun to get into their rhythm, when both of my parents got serious, frightening health news within a few weeks of each other. My dad has Parkinson’s disease, and my mom, breast cancer.

My dad is on some medication that seems to be helping a lot, and my mom has since had surgery and is recovering very well and rapidly. Both diseases are in early stages, and, at least for the present, things look like they are going to be ok for both of them. But still. The experience sent me for a spin, in so many ways.

When I was little, I used to deal with the idea of death, and my parents’ death in particular, by deciding the only way death would be acceptable to me was if I lived to be very old and my parents lived to be extraordinarily old, and we all died on the same day.

Much has changed since then. My parents are no longer together, and I don’t live with either of them anyway. I don’t know, if such an odd situation as I described above came about, if it would be particularly soothing to me. Charlotte and I were at the beach recently with her family, and there was a piece of art on the wall in the master bedroom that said something like, if you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live a day without you. We both agreed that this sentiment seemed a bit odd to us: are you wishing your partner to have a sad last day of life, since you just died? Isn’t it a little creepy to quantify your love and decide who gets to die first based on that?  But death, disease, and vulnerability of those I love, of myself, and of my parents, particularly, whose strength of body I have counted on without even knowing I was doing it, and whose vulnerabilities seem to point in a direct but unreadable line to my waiting, seemingly so healthy flesh– which I know so intimately and yet whose significant eventual weaknesses I do not, cannot know– well, these things still have the power to stymy me completely, to leave me dizzy and disoriented in a landscape of being for which I have no map.

One thing that kept happening, in the maelstrom of my reaction to all this, was that I would think with surprising dread about the school year coming up. “Why am I doing this?” I thought, meaning the program I am in, the classes I will teach, all of it, I guess. “Does it matter to anyone?” It just seemed, I have to tell you, like a lot of stress and work that might not actually be important things to do–for me, or for anybody.

So… I didn’t quit, or anything. I traveled to see my parents. I traveled to see my friends.  I read a bunch: some my disciplined school reading, which I clung to despite my (hopefully temporary) inability to do the kind of organizational work I need at this stage of the game, and some just for desire’s sake– my old childhood standbys, a book for a book club, new books by fiercely loved authors. Finally, I began to work on my syllabus for this coming semester. Ideas for how to structure my teaching popped into my head on the subway and receded as soon as I was in front of the computer. I wrestled. I played. I counted out days– enough time between one assignment and the next? Too much?

When I visited my mom before her surgery, I kept trying to get her to drink more water to prepare for the dehydration that would result. I’ve always been a thirsty person, so I felt this was an example I could easily set, something I actually understood in the wilds of surgical language, paperwork, preparation. “It’s a skill I have,” I said, a bit facetiously,  as we walked into my grandmother’s apartment building. “Being a pain in the neck?” my mom quipped. “Well, I’ve had a good role model,” I replied, and we laughed and laughed, something in the easy teasing breaking through the fear and tension that were pressing in otherwise. Later, I heard her talking on the phone about reality TV, making the exact same complaints I had made in a separate phone call, one she had not heard, to Charlotte. I thought about apples and trees.

When I visited my dad, we went out for dinner and he told me that he is coming to realize that he is not his brain, that the threat to his brain does not have to be a mortal threat to him, himself, in the reality of himself. He doesn’t know exactly what that means yet, but he believes it. And I believe him. He has promised that the cracking of everything you thought you know does not have to be the end of growth or wisdom. And I believe him. He got a big dessert and enjoyed every bite, and then he got lost looking for where we were going next, second guessing himself and wandering too far. I thought about apples and trees some more.

I have not fallen far, in many ways. I am so far, in others. I am not far in ways I cannot see, ways that are beyond the potential of body to fail, to suffer, to falter, ways that are about the spirit and the mind and the things that make me laugh.

So I came back from this, and I came back to my syllabus. (I know– we keep lurching back and forth, but this is how it has felt, so disjointed and everything so pressing). I was going through the mountains of paper my previous students had left me, and I found their words evaluating the course for me, bright, slippery, coated in salt and spice and drips of honey. One said a story we read pulled him in “like a fish.” One said she knew that one paper she wrote was her best, even though she didn’t get her best grade on it. Many said they loved our discussions best, getting to talk about things that mattered to them. I loved our discussions best, too. I always do. One said he fell asleep in them sometimes because they were boring, but admitted that maybe this would have improved if he had said something himself. They lied to me, I’m sure, occasionally, but they also told the truth. And the truth, in the balance, was that it seemed like we’d done something worth doing. That it was better, for at least a handful of them, to have taken this course than it would have been if they had not taken it.

I began to get excited about teaching again.

We lurch through these semesters, while our outside lives fray and tatter and come together and fall apart. We do it together. I think it’s hard to understand how fully we do it together, until you have been on both sides of the classroom, slipping the mantle of anxious authority on and off your shoulders, hoping for magic, for alchemy, for honesty, for connection, for five minutes together in which you all seem to want to be there, in which everyone is learning, although it’s rarely whatever the lesson plan had laid out for the day.

So there’s this anthology, and it’s full of all queer-teacher-poets, talking about teaching and queerness. And the premise, I think, is that what we say as queer teachers is significant precisely because of our identities, of the way we are situated in the world, even if we are not talking about sexuality at all. And the premise is also that teaching is something worth singing about, worth twisting words into beauty about. Worth the time it takes to do, and also worth the time it takes to write and read about.

And I realize, writing this, that this woven-together feeling that the book values and emphasizes, the idea that my queerness matters to my teaching and my teaching to my queerness, even if they seem separate– this is why I couldn’t just write a post that said, hey, y’all, I’m in a book! Or even something that was just about teaching and/or queerness, but rather I had to talk to you about what has really been going on.

I think in some ways that’s what this book celebrates. The “really” about all of us, and the way it may feel like a detraction, something that takes us away from the work we should be doing, something that distracts– when honestly, it is what makes us teachers. The “really” of our lives, beautiful, ugly, wicked, confusing, secret, thrilling– that’s the magic word. That’s what erupts in the classroom, every now and then, in the middle of the plodding and the oversleeping and the where-the-hell-is-the-worksheet-I-printed-out and the oh-the-paper-is-due-TODAY?, and suddenly we are somewhere holy. Suddenly we are somewhere true.

Here’s the link to the book’s website: http://www.thisassignmentissogay.com/home, and here’s the link to buy it from the publisher: http://siblingrivalrypress.bigcartel.com/product/this-assignment-is-so-gay-lgbtiq-poets-on-the-art-of-teaching

I hope you enjoy– this post, the book, your families, your lives, the remainder of the summer and the start of the school year. Thanks for reading!

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