Friday, September 25, 2009

Axing Frozen Seas

I love Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. Love it. If you're unfamiliar, the main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning as a giant human-sized bug.

I can't explain why this tugs on my heart so much, except to say that I think it's one of the most gorgeous, odd, true, terribly sad accounts of what happens when disease, mental illness, or addiction changes us beyond recognition. It's about what happens to families when someone is sick, how it breaks and remolds everyone involved. And I love it.

My students, on the other hand, do not.

They have in the past. I taught a class where they ate.it.up. and wrote about it in their papers and I could feel in what they wrote that it felt true to them, that Kafka struck something.

But not this semester.

"This story sucks," they said at the end of class today, after a week of talking about it. I wish that sentence didn't bother me so much. I wish it didn't make me feel like weeping, like a failure. You can't teach when you feel like a weeping failure. I mean, you can. I did. But it's not easy.

And the thing is, I learned all this stuff today. Based on evidence they collected, I realized new ways to read the text. I learned that in a way, Gregor's demise can be seen as the first time he allows himself to be selfish, to demand what he needs and wants. I learned that the sister is an incredibly intuitive character who understands her family and what it needs and, perhaps, saves herself and her parents from a fate similar to Gregor's. I learned and I learned, and I told them all about it, asking them questions, showing them how to use their evidence to prove surprising arguments, and all but jumping up and down in front of the room with the pure joy of seeing something new in a text that I really love.

This story sucked. That was their response. I say "they," but I suppose I mean a few of them. One or two. But still, when I was dying to know how universal the negativity was, and I asked them to raise their hands if they even remotely liked it, only half of them did. Half. And most were tentative hands. And the week feels wasted. And I worry I'm making them hate reading instead of love it. And I think, for the hundredth thousandth time, about finding a new career.

But I don't want a new career. I like this job, more and more. And when I'm not standing in front of a class of rude (because it is rude, is it not?) students, it feels like what I was always meant to do. Pushing aside all the annoying business, I'm beyond blessed to have this job. And sometimes they love stuff, don't they? Doesn't it work sometimes? Today, I can't remember.

Kafka said this thing about literature that maybe you've heard: "A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us."

So maybe they're all just frozen seas. Little frozen seas sitting in chairs.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I Don't Know What to Tell You. I Want to Tell You Everything.

It's been awhile since I poked my head up and said hello. We moved and it was hard. The semester started and it was busy. We went whale watching (!), and that will be another post.

It's late. I taught the third week of my night class tonight, during which this grown up accountant man said, "This class is like going to therapy!" I think that was a good thing, but I can't be sure. We were talking about childhood and identity and innocence and experience.

And out of all the things I could pluck out of the hours of my life to tell you, it seems most important to say this: I am, finally, happy. Really happy. Pleased as a peach to be in my life, not really longing for anyone elses'.

I can't explain this, really. I was depressed last year, and sick. And all of that seems so clear now: that I simply wasn't okay. Depression makes every moment into a brick; they weigh so much and take so long to stack up and once they're stacked you feel trapped and very tired. And anxiety makes you feel hunted, like everything you do must be wrong and everyone knows it and how does anyone manage to get out of bed anyway? My co-workers and students and the other drivers on the road and my family and my friends and men walking down the street and my husband and people at church and editors and God, everyone was filling up their days with watching me, waiting for my next mistake, and I was making so damn many of them. That felt absolutely true, like I couldn't remember when it wasn't true, like there simply was no room for error.

And now, I'm healthy. And I'm beginning to trust that feeling of health, which is a strange feeling. Suddenly, I can make plans with people and commitments to do things because I trust I'll have the energy to do it. I'm beginning to really love my job, to adore my students and their sweet insightful brains, the way it feels to stand in front of them and smile and nod and say yes-yes, the way I get paid to talk about this thing that's so important to me, this thing I really love. And the department's not perfect, but I don't care anymore. No one's hunting me or posed to fire me. I just do my thing and do my thing and do a little of their thing and then my thing again.

I had to teach for an observer today, someone who was assigned to watch me as they do all new teachers, to make sure I'm not a total flop. I was terrified about it because I had a big deadline yesterday and after I met it I locked myself out of my house and apartment for five hours, and I was so so tired this morning and the class to be observed was (is) the toughest teaching crowd I've ever had. But I prayed, and prayed hard. And God answered me. I didn't have a word written down before class, no lesson plan to speak of, but when it was time to talk, I knew what to say, and my students talked. It was as if He whispered in our ears. I don't know what the observer will think, but when I finished I felt wonderful. I felt like could do anything, and God liked me.

I didn't deserve this. There's nothing about me that particularly obliges God or anyone to help me. He could have left me sick and sad indefinitely. But I think, for whatever reason, He's decided to give me respite. I'm so keenly aware of it as an undeserved blessing right now. So grateful.