Wednesday, August 25, 2010

August 25: Saint Joseph Calasanz

I am done with my first week of teaching as of this writing.  The thing I always say to myself after the first week of classes is this:  "Fooled them again."

Ever since I began teaching close to twenty years ago, I've felt like a fraud.  I'm not an expert on anything.  I've been writing longer than my students, so I've learned a few more tricks than them.  Because of my age, I've read a lot more than most of my students, as well, so I have a broader knowledge base to draw from.  My biggest fear, however, is that my students are going to look at me one day and say, "You don't know jack shit."  It hasn't happened yet, but I honestly believe it's only a matter of time.

And then I'm just going to have to shrug and say, "You got me."

One of the smartest guys I've ever known (a professor at the university at which I teach) once told me that, after he received his PhD from the University of Michigan, he walked out of the graduation ceremony and realized he didn't know anything.  So, I'm not alone in my feelings of inadequacy.

I know I've written about this subject before.  When you've been teaching  as long as me, you sort of start wondering if anything you've done in the classroom has made an iota of difference in anyone's life.

When I went to the mail room in the English Department a couple days ago, I ran into a former student.  I'd had him in class about five or six years ago.  I even remembered his name, which usually doesn't happen.  At the end of a semester, after I've submitted my final grades, my brain usually does a dump, getting rid of names and details.  The students I remember are students who have done something unique or gone out of their way to keep in touch.

The student I ran into in the English Department was a great beginning poet when I met him.  He showed me his work when I was his instructor, and I remember wanting to kill him, incinerate his body, and claim his poems as my own (in a metaphorical sense, of course).  He was that good.

I asked him what he was up to.

"Oh, you know," he said.  "I'm a teaching assistant in the MFA program" 

Hence the dress shirt and freshly shorn hair, I thought.

"And I've been writing poetry," he said.

"Oh," I said, flipping through the envelopes in my mailbox.  "Any luck?"

"Oh, yeah," he said with a little too much enthusiasm.  "I just had a poem accepted in Cream City Review."  He then went on for half a minute, listing all the journals and magazines in which he'd been published.

And with each addition to the list, I wanted to stab him with the mechanical pencil in my hand.  Edit him out of existence, so to speak.

"And this is my first semester in the MFA, " he finished.

"Wow," I said.  "You've been busy."  You rat bastard.

"And it all started with your class," he said.  "Almost seven years ago." 

I nodded.  Now you're calling me old.  "That's nice of you to say."  I wanted out of the conversation, out of the room.

He smiled a killer smile that, I'm sure, the undergrad girls in the class he's teaching go wild over.  "No, I mean it," he said.  "I wouldn't be here without that class."

I looked at him closely.  He was being sincere, in an un-jaded, just-stepped-off-the-boat-from-Ellis-Island kind of way.  He was in the land of opportunity, and he was thanking me for helping him get there.

Joseph Calasanz is the patron saint of students.  A Spanish priest, he started teaching poor children mathematics, reading, and writing in rented  rooms outside the walls of the Vatican.  Several other priests joined him in his efforts to educate Rome's impoverished boys and girls.  Eventually, Joseph established the religious order called the Clerics Regular of the Poor Schools of the Mother of God.

I don't think it's a coincidence that my encounter with my former student/rising poetry star happened on the feast day of the patron saint of students.  That was just a little too convenient.  God loves playing those kinds of jokes on me.  I'd been wondering if I'd made a difference in any student's life.  Here was the answer.  If you're wondering what I told my student, I took the saintly road.

"You should stop by me office some time," I told him.  "I'd love to read some of your stuff."  Stuff.  That's what poets call poems.

"Yeah, sure," my student said, practically wagging his ass like a puppy.

I left the mail room, my student standing before his mailbox, shining like a fresh penny, a promising future unfolding before him.

I walked back to my office.  I turned off the lights, pulled the blinds, and closed the door.  I pretended I wasn't there.  I'd had enough messages from God for the day.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

August 21: Saint Pius X

Two days before I start to teach for the fall semester at the university.  The weather has been swerving from grey and raining to cool and sunny to humid and hot all weekend.  It is the end of summer, even though there's still two weeks of August left.  These last days of summer always fill me with melancholy.  I know, I know.  No big surprise.  I usually spend this time planning and preparing the next three months of work for myself.  Read this book this week.  Papers to grade the next week.  Quizzes to create that day.  Reading journals to review the following weekend.  I am no longer free to do what I want.  I have obligations, 50 students depending on me.  Lesson plans.  Schedules.  Deadlines.  Less day.  More night.  Basically, everything that is the opposite of May, June, July, and August.  And don't even get me started on Christmas music and programs at church.  Yes, it starts this early.  You thought Wal-Mart was bad.

It doesn't help that I just started rereading Cormac McCarthy's The Road for class, which is one of the coldest, bleakest novels ever written.  The first time I read it, I was sitting by a pool in the middle of July during a heat wave, and I still found myself getting chilled.  If you haven't read the novel, you should.  It's one of my favorites.  It's about a father and son trying to reach the Pacific Ocean in post-apocalypse America.  They're starving and desperate.  They encounter bands of cannibals who capture and keep people like livestock, harvesting them for food.  The father and son have a handgun with one bullet for protection.  Oh, and the father is dying of some ailment that causes fits of bloody coughing.  This all takes place in a landscape of charred trees and baked earth, where sunlight is a memory and everything and everyone is covered in grey ash.  Constant snow and rain.

So, throw that uplifting piece of literature on top of my already end-of-summer melancholia, and you have the recipe for a pretty shitty day.  I know I should feel blessed in my life.  I mean, I'm an English major with advanced degrees, and I have jobs that don't require me to run a deep fryer.  Let's make it even simpler:  I have jobs that allow me to pay my bills.  In this economy, that's pretty damn good.  I'm feeling sorry for myself when some people I know don't have the money to make their next house payment.  That's pretty fucked up.

I used to look forward to fall and winter, the shortening of the days, the long reach of the night.  I waited for the maple leaves to turn yellow and orange, the evenings to ice the throat when you breathe.  I've always been a lover of the dark.  That may shock some of you.  I never opened windows or curtains in my house.  I was the neighborhood Boo Radley, with kids walking by my property and whispering stories about the crazy English professor who only comes out under the cover of darkness.

Nowadays, I look forward to those long summer days, when the sun is in the sky at 5 a.m. and sticks around until nearly 11 at night.  I like the bright heat, opening windows and airing out the dead moats of autumn and winter.  I crave those dog days when just shifting in a chair from one ass cheek to another can make you break a sweat.  The thing is, in the hot months, I don't have to do anything that makes me sweat.  School's out, and, aside from punching the clock at my second job, I have the freedom to  That freedom comes to a close tomorrow.

I don't do well with things ending, especially things that I've enjoyed, like vacations or friendships or movies or books.  It's a selfish impulse, wanting a happiness to continue forever.  In his last will and testament, today's saint, Pius X, who was one of the first popes of the 20th century, made the following statement:  "I was born poor, I have lived in poverty, and I wish to die poor."  Maybe, because of my mood, I read those words as meaning poverty of body, mind, and spirit.  Right now, I'm clinging to the happiness of the last month or so.  It has been a time of stability and relative peace in my usually chaotic day-to-day.  I've really enjoyed that.  But usually, when things are going that well, the earth shifts, and I find myself in poverty again.

Poverty is not a bad thing.  It brings you back to the basics, makes you realize what wealth really is.  Wealth has nothing to do with the tangible--money or possessions.  It has everything to do with the intangible (peace, love, security, hope), because the tangible always ends up slipping away, like sea water through your fingers.

Cormac McCarthy writes in The Road, "All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain.  Their birth in grief and ashes.  So, he whispered to the sleeping boy.  I have you."  It's a father cleaving to his son.  A man cleaving to something pure, something sacred, something intangible.  It's the way, I imagine, God cleaves to us.

Through pain.  Through darkness.  In light like summer.  That's unchangeable.  That's wealth.

Friday, August 13, 2010

August 13: Saint Benildus

It is Friday the 13th.  I'm not really superstitious, however.  Nothing really terrible has ever happened to me on a Friday the 13th.  I'm pretty sure the bad karma attributed to the day comes from the fact that Christ was supposedly crucified on a Friday, and the unlucky number 13 is connected to the number of people at the Last Supper.  The superstition, then, has its roots in Christian tradition.  That doesn't mean that I believe in the whole black-cat, step-on-a-crack, don't-walk-under-a-ladder way of thinking.  However, I did grow up with the whole Jason-in-a-hockey-mask, serial killer thing.  As long as I'm not camping in a rustic cabin on a deserted lake with a group of horny teenagers, I can confidently say that I'm pretty safe.

As a follower of Christ, I guess I shouldn't really subscribe to ideas of luck or karma or fate.  Friday the 13th is just another day of the month...Okay, I just typed that and nothing bad happened.  A brick didn't crush my skull.  Lightning didn't strike my computer and fry its circuitry.  The phone didn't ring with news that my house was on fire or my dog died of severe mange.  (Actually, I don't own a dog, but I just wanted to use the word "mange.")

Since I'm courting catastrophe by scoffing at Friday the 13th, I think I'll just throw caution to the wind and talk about some dreams and goals I have for myself and my life.  So, this post may really annoy those of you who can't stand the me-me-me-ness of current popular books like Eat, Pray, Love.  (I think I may be the only man I know who actually liked that book.)  In my defense, you are reading a blog written about me and my experiences by me.  What the hell do you expect?

Anyway, I recently accomplished one of the goals I've had for a while.  I was chosen as Employee of the Month for the health care system I work for.  That means, for one shining period of 31 days, I was better than over 1200 other people.  (Okay, even I have to admit that statement sounds incredibly shallow.)  I know that awards and accolades don't determine how good of a person I am.  But it's a lot easier to feel good about myself if I have that physical affirmation to back it up.  Plus the money that went with the award was nice.  It's sort of like my coworker who just purchased a new used car.  "Is it bad that I feel like a better person when I'm driving now?" she asked me.

One of my current goals may seem equally as self-serving as the one I just wrote about.  I know I shouldn't crave fame or readership, although sometimes it feels like I'm writing only for myself and the few friends I drag to a computer and force to review my latest post.  I know there are more readers out there than I'm aware of.  However, writing is essentially a lonely process.  You write in isolation, rewrite in isolation, and, in the case of a blog, publish in isolation.  I revel in comments from readers I don't know personally because it means that what I'm writing is actually being read by people who aren't obligated to read it.

Which brings me to my next goal.  I want to be chosen by as a Blog of Note.  Basically, every month, the good people who run choose blogs that somehow strike their fancy for some reason.  I've reviewed a lot of the blogs that have received this distinction.  They don't seem to follow any particular topic or theme.  There's artists and cab drivers and chicken farmers and Hooter's waitresses and moustache fetishists.  You name it.

I want to be chosen as a Blog of Note.

Now, the problem is that the authors of these blogs are pretty good self-promoters.  They do things like e-mail and threaten to torture kittens if their blog isn't chosen for recognition.  I'm not good at stuff like that.  I think another way a blog gets chosen is by having a large following.  That means I need more followers.  I've been at five followers for a while now.  So, what I'm asking is for those of you anonymous followers to register as official followers.  Tell your friends/relatives to register as followers.  I like new friends, even if they're cyber.  And, if you feel so inclined, e-mail and tell them you're going to shave a puppy if Feasts & Famines isn't chosen as a Blog of Note.  It might help.

Now, this blatant plea for recognition and popularity may seem to be antithetical to my quest for becoming more saintly.  I agree with you.  Benildus, today's saint, didn't go around telling friends to mention his name to the pope.  Basically, Benildus spent his life as a teaching priest in France in the 19th century.  He established a school in Saugues, France, and spent almost a third of his life providing free education to underprivileged boys.  He had a reputation for sanctity, generosity, and humility (of course).  He didn't care is he was voted Teacher of the Year.  He didn't even care is he was a Priest of Note.  Benildus just did what he thought God wanted him to do.  When I started this blog, I really thought it was God who planted the seed in my heart.  It was something I felt I needed to do.  I think that qualifies as being called, just like Benildus was called to teach.

I thought God was going to take control, and I'd have over 1000 followers by now.  I'd be getting calls from the New York Times and have my pick of literary agents.  At the very least, I'd be a freakin' Blog of Note.  But, of course, God has other plans.  So, I'm just going to keep writing and trusting.  It's all I can do.  The rest is out of my hands, like all goals and dreams.  It's not about luck, good or bad.  It's about trust.

And a few hundred e-mails to by some avid fans.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

August 11: Saint Clare

I'm having one of those days when I don't find a whole lot to be happy about.  I've known it was coming.  I've been in a good mood for quite some time now.  One of my friends, after reading my last few posts, said to me, "Those are really nice.  What's up with that?"  Last night, I felt the tide shifting.  I spent the evening sitting in my living room in the dark, watching the season finale of Hell's Kitchen.  Seeing people verbally assaulted on television usually improves my mood.  It didn't help.

There are reasons for my change in attitude.  An accumulation of reasons.  The end of summer and the impending start of a new teaching semester.  My daughter starting fourth grade in a few weeks.  Twenty or so pounds I need to lose.  Sarah Palin still in the news.  And other things.  Put them all together, and I'm in one of those states that doesn't quite qualify as a dark night of the soul, as John of the Cross called it.  More like a cloudy-with-a-chance-of-brussel-sprouts evening of the soul.  Just enough to push me to the edge.

I hate getting like this.  It's not really full-blown depression.  I guess, if you had to use a clinical term, it could be called situational depression, which doesn't sound too bad.  To me, situational depression seems to imply that all you have to do to correct the problem is change the channel on the TV, watch a few reruns of Gilligan's Island or The Brady Bunch (especially the one where Marcia gets hit in the nose with the football).  Simple.  Problem solved. 

Not quite.

The good thing about this kind of mood is that it doesn't require hospitalization or medication.  Usually.  In the past, my way of coping involved River Phoenix movies and a trip through Catcher in the Rye.  Maybe some wine coolers.  I haven't resorted to those antidotes yet, and, at my stage in life, I'd probably want to slap the shit out of Holden anyway.  So, I have to come up with some other coping mechanisms.  Hopefully, they won't involve the abuse of chocolate, caffeine, or prescription drugs.  I can't guarantee it, though.  I have a serious weakness for Cosmic Brownies and Twix bars.

I know I'm in good company when it comes to suffering these bouts of soul dusk.  I've written in a previous post about Mother Teresa's letters in which she talks about the "dryness," "darkness," "loneliness," and "torture" of her life.  She discusses the alienation she feels from God, as if she's been ignored or forgotten.  She wrote to a spiritual adviser, " for me, the silence and emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, --Listen and do not hear--the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak..."  I'd like to think that, for people like Mother Teresa and Clare, today's patron saint, there's a kind of lighthouse of hope that lets them always see through the dark times.  Clare, who was a contemporary of Francis of Assisi, established a religious order that embraced poverty and the care of the needy, sick, and outcast.  Faced with daily evidence of cruelty and neglect, I'm sure Clare, like Teresa, experienced periods of drought, when God seemed as distant as Pluto or Jupiter (the planets, not the gods).  Teresa lived for years in this empty space, smiling her usual smile in public, groping through darkness in private.

Clare and Teresa made it through, obviously. One's a saint and one's on her way to sainthood. And they did it without the aid of Ativan or Gilligan's Island.  Even if I'm having a shitty day/week/month, as long as I have something to look forward to, something to hope for, I can make it through.  When that hope dims or disappears around a bend in the road, I find myself in the state I'm in right now--contemplating a Cosmic Brownie binge.  I'll make it through this funk, however.  I know this.  I just have to rediscover hope.

In the mean time, I'm hitting the chocolate drawer at work.  Kit Kats and PayDays. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

August 10: Saint Lawrence

I'm baaaaa-aaaaack!

Sorry about my prolonged absence from the blog.  For my two or three loyal readers, I will try to make it up to you by writing a couple posts this week.  However, I was on vacation for the last week or so.  No where near a computer, keyboard, monitor, i-Pad, whatever.  Basically, all I've been doing is reading; playing with my almost-two-year-old son and almost-tween daughter; spending some much-needed quality time with my wife; and soaking up the final hot days of summer before the long slide into autumn.

So I have a few points of business to take care of.  First, my friend from Georgia had an operation and is recuperating, so I want anyone who reads this to send healing thoughts and prayers her way.  Second, my pastor friend and his wife had a baby last Friday night, so I want to send a shout-out to the little Twilight girl (that's an inside joke--sorry, I try not to be cryptic and cutesie in my posts, but I'm just coming off a ten-day break; my inner sarcastic child has not woken up yet).

I didn't do anything spiritually fulfilling during my time off.  I didn't build a school in the Ozarks.  I didn't volunteer in a soup kitchen in inner-city Detroit.  I didn't work for Habitat for Humanity (you don't want to see me with power tools, believe me!).  The closest thing I did  for charity was purchase The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner.  For those of you who don't know, for each copy of the book that is sold, one dollar is donated to the American Red Cross.  So, I killed two birds with one stone.  I got a birthday present for a friend and assuaged my Christian guilt a little bit.  Not much.  A little.

I'm not sure I've ever read about a saint taking a vacation.  But it's gotta get tiring being holy 24-7.  I know I couldn't handle it.  I'm way too self-absorbed, to quote a good friend.  Lawrence, the saint for today, is the patron of the poor and of cooks.  The reason he's the patron of the poor:  when he was ordered to turn over the "treasures of the Church" to the Roman government, Lawrence gathered over a thousand beggars, street people, and destitute children.  All the gold and silver the Roman Prefect was seeking had been sold as alms for the assembled crowd.  The reason Lawrence is the patron of cooks:  the Prefect had him roasted over a fire pit for his defiance of Rome.  Lawrence is reputed to have told his torturers, "This side's done, turn me over and have a bite."  On a side note, he's also the patron saint of comedians.

I don't think Lawrence took any paid time off.  If he had, I'm sure he would have skipped the barbecue.  I also don't think he and I were cut from the same cloth, although I appreciate his sense of humor.  I could see his death as part of a Monty Python skit, with John Cleese as the saint-kabob.  Like Lawrence, most of the holy people I've read about seem to think having time away from work has to involve fasting 40 days in the desert.

Me, I opt for a trip to a water park, a bag of Cheetos, and a trashy novel.