Merton the teacher . . .
But I liked teaching very much—especially teaching this kind of a class, in which most of the students had to work for their living, and valued their course because they had to pay for it out of their own savings. Teaching people like that is very flattering: the class is always so eager to get anything you have to give them, and the mere fact that they want so much, is liable to give you the impression that you are capable of giving them all they want.
For my part I was left more or less free to go ahead and teach them according to my own ideas. Now if people are going to write, they must first of all have something to write about, and if a man starts out to teach English composition, he implicitly obliges himself to teach the students how to get up enough interest in things to write about them. But it is also impossible for people to learn to write unless they also read. And so a course in composition, if it is not accompanied somewhere along the line by a course in literature, should also take a little time to teach people how to read, or at least how to get interested in a book.
Therefore, I spent most of the time throwing out ideas about what might or might not be important in life and in literature, and letting them argue about it. The arguments got better when they also included discussion of thestudents’ favorite ideas, as expressed on paper. It soon turned out that although they did not all have ideas, they all had a definite hunger for ideas and for convictions, from the young man who wrote a theme about how happy he had been one summer when he had had a job painting a church, to the quiet Catholic housewife who sat in one of the middle rows viewing me with a reassuring smile and an air of friendly complicity whenever the discussion got around near the borders of religion. So it was a very lively class, on the whole.
But it was only to last a term. And when January came around, they told me, down in the office, that they were going to give me a class in straight, unalleviated grammar in the spring session.
Grammar was something I knew absolutely nothing about, and only the most constant vigilance had kept it out of sight in the composition class. Besides, since I was entering the monastery in the summer, I assured myself that I ought to take a last vacation, and I was already leafing through books about Mexico and Cuba, trying to decide where I would spend the money that I was no longer going to need to support myself in the world.
I told the heads of my department that I could not teach grammar in the spring, because I wanted to prepare myself for life in the cloister. They asked me what made me want to do such a thing as that, and sadly shook their heads, but did not try to argue me out of it. They told me I could come back if I changed my mind—and it almost sounded as if they were saying: “We’ll take you back when you’ve been disillusioned and given up this fantastic notion as a bad job.”
I agree with Merton about writing. It is impossible to learn how to write well without reading. A lot.
Many people wonder why the satchel I carry with me all of the time is so overburdened with books. Currently, I'm hauling books of poems by Seamus Heaney and Natasha Trethewey and Joy Harjo, a biography of Charles Dickens, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers by Matthew Gavin Frank, and various notebooks, journals, and sketchbooks. Plus, I squeeze in my laptop and some power cords.
I tell people who ask my why, WHY do I need all these books, "Well, you never know when you're going to get stuck in an elevator for a few weeks." The answer is weirdly specific enough to disarm the inquirer of any follow-up questions, and I am able to change the topic.
Here's my real answer to this query: I carry piles of books with me everywhere I go because I like to surround myself with friends. The voices in the books speak to me in deep ways. They don't try to make small talk about the weather or sports teams. No, these friends talk about subjects that are essential and important. Just this morning, Seamus Heaney said to me, "Out there in Jutland / In the old man-killing parishes / I will feel lost, / Unhappy and at home." (Heaney, "The Tollund Man," Wintering Out.) And Natasha Trethewey answered back " . . . Here is the threshold I do not cross: / a sliver of light through the doorway finds his tattoo, / the anchor on his forearm tangled in its chain." (Trethewey, "Fouled," Thrall,)
I live my days with lots of unanswered, unanswerable questions. Like almost every human being on this planet. When those questions become loud and insistent, I turn to the friends in my satchel. They don't try to hand me easy answers aimed at making me feel better. In fact, they don't try to make me feel better at all. Instead, they speak words that help me understand that I am not alone in my struggle. That they are walking the same path that I'm on.
That is what true friendship and love is all about. Not solving all the problems of life. Rather, being a fellow traveler. Through thick, thin, in the old man-killing parishes, at the threshold of the doorway, in a sliver of light. Preach, Seamus. Hallelujah, Natasha.
Saint Marty says a holy "amen" for his friends whose voices cry out in the wilderness.
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