Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Emptying

Photograph:  Jar with birds-of-paradise at Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2009
One thing I find very funny about online life is that if you post something personal and musing, people are not nearly as interested as if you say something ridiculous. After I posted the somewhat serious bit below, I rambled over to facebook and left the somewhat ridiculous status line, Had a music lesson today. I am as ignorant as a potato.  Immediately one has several dozen wonderfully funny and equally ridiculous comments from all sorts of people, artists and writers and my one businessman (who is also a writer) and others! Puns. Faux proverbs from either side of the Atlantic. Claims for the intellect of the potato. Tales of potato art (my contribution.) The intersection of music and potatoes (thank you, Gary and youtube.) And links. And "likes."

My distant cousin William Wallace Tabbot, who found me when I posted something about one of my ancestors (Sally Jo Hance, perhaps?), "likes" everything. He is giving my first cousins a run for their facebook money. I am almost as fond of him as of my cousin who writes me letters and tells me what's going on down South without me.

Must say that I don't really mind... I mean, I like being silly.  I like silly things. For example, I like chickens. I haven't had a post about chickens in a long time. Maybe I'll talk about chickens tomorrow.  Or maybe I won't.

* * *

While I was drinking tea this morning—meditative drink, tea is—I realized that the arc of my life as I approached my mid-thirties slowly turned away from everything valued by the world I grew up in.  It’s as if I had to undo everything that I had done and was “supposed” to do in order to be what I am.  Even though I began thinking of myself as a writer when I was still a child, I was distracted and absorbed by many things.

When I received tenure, I quit teaching. (I do sometimes do short-term events lasting up to a few weeks, so I still have an occasional toe in the reflecting pool near the ivory tower.)  Since I won my tenure two years early, I did not teach all that long.  My feeling was that teaching, while exciting and rewarding, was not the right place for me as a writer; I know others rely on it, and so I say nothing about whether it is good for writers in general—each must decide. But I gave up my promotion and a regular and increasing income.  I gave up a place in the world and the amount of power that goes with it.  I “wasted” my education. In the end, I emptied myself of a great deal in order to be filled up with something else.

(I suppose having three children is a somewhat analogous choice. One gives up a great deal in order to have that increase in life, an increase that has to be fed and clothed and educated. And one does, indeed, have more life—and many other things besides, some exhausting and some wonderful and renewing.)
It’s akin to a spiritual act, though not the same:  an emptying in order to be filled.

Looking back, I could be full of regret at what I gave up.  I could think that I had wasted life and substance, and certainly I would now be more solvent if I had clung to my job.  Luckily, I don’t feel that way.
 
Sometimes what you do seems to people like the worst possible thing you could do, and yet it turns out to be the best.  And that sounds to me like a religious idea as well. Yet I was simply groping about in darkness, not sure how to live my life differently and choosing in some degree of blindness.

8 comments:

  1. I can identify. I made similar changes, deciding to give up a teaching career and stay at home, do my art and bring up a family. We had to forego that second income and pension and hope to make a little from art while the family benefited from a mother at home. I don't have regrets, only much thanks to a husband able to support us all and be my "patron of the arts".

    So, after all that serious musing, one has to lighten the load and be silly, right? (Not that I saw any of it since I'm not on Facebook, but I can imagine.)

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  2. Marly,
    I didn't go to Facebook today because I was preoccupied with the window Jeremy kicked in last night and the workshop I must start teaching in a few weeks at the synagogue and my fear that I'll make a fool of myself teaching people things there that they already know. I don't know who my audience is going to be exactly.
    But I look forward to going to FB and commenting about potatoes and music etc.
    RE: doing the wrong thing that isn't wrong for you, I find that an interesting thought and hope it comes out that way for me as well.

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  3. My feeling is that I can do two very big things well, but that it is hard to do three really big things well. Though there are people who do--Doris Betts was president of the faculty at UNC and a mother of a good-sized family and a writer. It boggles!

    Yes, I think we ought to encourage men and women in the professions to support the arts by marrying artists!

    I do like silly.

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  4. Oops, Robbi, I missed you--

    Yes, luck with changes, chosen and unchosen!

    I imagine there will be a mixed lot. Always something a little daunting about a variety of levels and trying to reach them all. Still, they will no doubt come in with more good will than a herd of freshman, many of whom don't want to be in an English class.

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  5. Sometimes it's simply more productive to follow ones intuition or bliss.
    The road does not have to be an uphill climb, but too many people do not realize that the things that come to them more easily than to others are probably things they should be doing.
    Many people suffer from the idea that 'work' is worthy and end up doing things they find... more difficult.

    Crazy but true.

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  6. Paul,

    That is an interesting idea! I suppose another way of looking at what I have done is that I have gone more and more toward the things that suit me...

    You suggest that it is the Puritan work ethic that makes people go for the things that don't suit them? Well, maybe so! Though I can think of a few people who moved against the grain of what they were naturally good at--and did so with great gusto.

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  7. I think this is true, but I am not a fan of the Puritan work ethic at all. Life is about living, and work facilitates that, but is not an important endeavor in other ways...

    We all do our thing, and sometimes 'our thing' can translate into many areas - which I like.

    You write, can teach well, sing (oh yes!) and manage many levels of family interaction, etc.
    Actually, you underestimate yourself!
    Not only do you do many things well, but each is a career in itself - and yet you think of just two of those things.
    Astounding!
    Perhaps you are only considering what some other people may think of as 'careers'?

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  8. Puritans have a bad rap, poor things! (No wonder, really!) I doubt there are many who would claim their work ethic by name.

    That is a very pleasant way of looking at things, even if I wouldn't claim singing at all. Having one's arm twisted to sing does not make one a singer. But that's okay. I just started lessons.

    You are a grand model of somebody who does many things with gracefulness and faux-ease (one of my favorite things in art, the appearance of ease.)

    Now back to my mad rush reviewing "Thaliad."

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.