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I spent this morning, after finishing my remote work, watching videos of your friend and mentor Paulus Berensohn talking about his art and his teaching. The occasion for my Berensohn-fest is of course in some way this letter to you, but I've also been thinking of the little I know about him often since leaving Massachusetts. One of the reasons why is that I've been trying to assemble a new journal (and have been dawdling despite myself!), which of course—the assembly, not the dawdling—also makes me think of you. But I think the larger reason he and you and journal-keeping have been coming to mind is that all feel very relevant as I—what, ponder? reconcile myself to? try to get excited about?—the particular moment I'm in in my writing life. I've become more and more interested in ideas of art as activity, versus art as a product that is or is not “successful,” whatever that might mean to the artist or her culture, as of late, no doubt in large part because of my creeping/increasing sense that my novel manuscript might remain only a manuscript, and that its value in the world may be primarily its value to me as something I've written and puzzled over and tried to make better—not as a book in the world, or something that sells, or something that brings me cultural capital.
The question of what would happen to that manuscript has loomed so large over the last couple of years, and it's contributed a significant amount of unhappiness to my days. Leaving Massachusetts and going to Montana broke that spell a little, and I've since both been working on new things and also thinking a lot about how crucial it is to unlink the reasons I'm writing and the possible outcomes of that writing beyond the process—crucial both because of the outlandish arbitrariness of successes in that realm, combined with a writer's relative lack of control over that stuff, and also because it really doesn't feel like the point, as evidenced by how many writers are endlessly hungry for more success even when they have it! There's obviously something besides externally-determined achievement that draws people to representing their consciousness and what they see of the world in art—or else hardly anyone would do it. I think of this Wallace Stevens poem, “The Planet on the Table,” which is one of my favorites ever and is probably the poem I think about most frequently, in part because it serves as almost a secular prayer for me:
Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
They were of a remembered time
Or of something seen that he liked.
Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed.
His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun.
It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,
Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.
Reading that in the context of writing this letter to you, I remember hearing you talk about your visits with your Smith classes to the library archives to examine the journals that are kept there—work by ordinary people who had little sense of their writing as a likely candidate for preservation or wide audiences, but whose pages nonetheless continue to matter beyond the span of their authors' lifetimes. And part of the reason these diarists' work has mattered, it seems to me, is that their practice was sincere and wholehearted in some fundamental way—their journals an accurate record of what mattered to one person, and what that person chose to set down for reasons that were, if not completely divorced from thoughts of what others might want to read, at least somewhat cordoned off from those pressures.
Everything I've heard about Paulus B. points to his interest in art as a way of being in the world and being present in it, akin to Stevens and these journal-keepers (“Someone once asked me what love was,” Paulus says in one of the videos I watched, “and I said, 'To pay attention'”). The journals he makes and teaches students to make are themselves a tool for cultivating this present-mindedness, which is such a cool thing to think about. I love how he calls them “nests.” Or, as he also says in a video, and as I remember you recounting to the class we taught, too, “a place where you can hang out.” Or to take from the Stevens poem, a space to set down “[s]ome lineament or character,//Some affluence, if only half-perceived/… Of the planet of which [we are] part.” (I loved, too, when he says that one question you can “bring… into the journal is, 'Who else is here?”—and then his example answer is “a mole”! Again, significant resonance with Stevens's “makings of the sun.”) This kind of practice, or this way of looking at a practice, is perhaps a way of being “glad,” as per “The Planet on the Table,” in the midst of the ongoing hard work of making things, whether words or pictures or pots or music or whatever else.
The other thing that really struck me as I watched these videos of Paulus—and how strange, too, just as a sidenote, that we have this amazing privilege of watching things like this, and how strange, too, for me to feel that I really “understand” much from viewing just 20 minutes of footage—but allow me nonetheless to use the videos as material here!—the other thing that struck me, watching them, was something about Paulus that I would struggle to pin down in specific mannerisms or even in what he said, but which made him feel to me like a true and consummate teacher. I'm sure that's inflected some by your stories of him, and by what I learned in reading up on his legacy: that for more than three decades he didn't sell his work, for instance, or that he began teaching bookmaking when a 15-year-old boy asked him to do a ceramics workshop and the boy's principal scoffed about how none of his students could stand books and just wanted to play with clay all day—and so a bookmaking workshop was Paulus's response. But I think it was also just something about the way in which he spoke in these videos. Everything he said felt warm and unpretentious, and yet also directed—and, above all, born of unceasing curiosity.
I've been thinking a lot about teaching—what it means to be a teacher and whether I might be one again soon—this past month or so, in part because of my trip to Bard (as I wrote about a bit in my last Ear Mountain to Becca P.), and in part because I've been missing teaching here. One of the hardest things for me about my desire to leave the Care Center was that it felt in a sense that I had—not failed as a teacher, exactly, but failed to sufficiently appreciate teaching in a context that was both very hard and also pretty amazing. A lot of people I'm friends with, especially here, are full-time teachers (most at the secondary level), and I've been a bit shaken by my own certainty that that's just not a desirable option at all for me. It feels easy to fall into a binary, which only reinforces my worry about not teaching, of thinking of being a teacher as somehow opposed to being a student. One of the ways in which I count myself most lucky is in the number of truly excellent teachers I've had—mostly in school, but out of it as well—and the fact that number of them have stayed a part of my life in big or small ways even as I've departed the original context in which we met. To reencounter these people—consummately lovely Marina van Z., for instance, or Mary Caponegro, who was, along with Edie, my fiction mentor at Bard—both of whom I saw in February while out in the Hudson Valley—reminds me of how much joy I felt as their student and of how I continue to learn from them even from afar, whether from their work or from the remembered ways in which they shaped me. Those connections are still one of the greatest sources of happiness in my life.
That type of relationship is one is which I feel extremely at ease and which I think about with pleasure but also with a certain self-skepticism, because there's no small amount of ego involved in being a beloved student, if I may presume myself to have been beloved. And is there not something easier in being a student than being a teacher, often? I had a conversation while at UMass with my friend Caroline (who is a fellow Bard-to-UMass-MFA sojourner ) in which she expressed a preference for teaching over studenthood (we were both then in the midst of our graduate teaching fellowships, which afforded an opportunity to be designated teachers and students all at once); she said something about the power dynamics of being a student and how the desire to please a teacher didn't agree with her, and I've always remembered that, in part because I was a bit stricken by how that power dynamic did agree with me, when I stopped to think about it. This is probably in large part because “good” student behavior was positively reinforced for me so early and often—I thought about this a lot at the Care Center, too, as I worked with students whose behavior or skills as students definitely hadn't been reinforced, and who thus, understandably enough, were not so crazy about being students.
For the past few years, though, I've been increasingly questioning my comfort in and occasional longing for the role of student, both because I am, of course, not a full-time student anymore, or even a part-time one at present, and also because I've been more and more a teacher these past five years. I don't want to bifurcate those ways of being entirely, or want to fight my tendency to do so, because I don't think it's an either-or split. But sometimes I find myself thinking of it that way nonetheless. Earlier in the composition of this letter, a passage from Ulysses came back to me, one that I really loved when I first read the book (which was at age 21, in the small yellow-walled room that I rented from my host family as a part of my language school program in Guatemala—the same program, possibly, that Rosa will go to!). Early in the book, Stephen Dedalus is talking to the headmaster of the school at which he teaches, and they have this exchange:
—I foresee, Mr. Deasy said, that you will not remain here very long at this work. You were not born to be a teacher, I think. Perhaps I am wrong.
—A learner rather, Stephen said.
There was no doubt in my mind, as I read that passage in the penultimate year of my—what, 17-year?— continuous run of studenthood, that Stephen Dedalus was heroic for his attitude on this front. I'd say if asked, as I suspect you might too, that being a “learner rather” for life is what a really good education ought to encourage every student to do. (I think of your wonderful question, posited as the one at the heart of all schooling, and already cited in another Ear Mountain: “How do you not waste the day?” What better way to not waste the day than to be constantly curious, asking questions, trying and trying and trying to understand beyond your current answers?)
Now several days have elapsed since I started this letter, and I've taken Paulus Berensohn's book Finding One's Way With Clay out of the library. In my browsing through it I found this great part that feels to me “very Lynda Barry,” and also very interested in preserving that curiosity and studenthood (although he, like Barry, makes it clear that a lot of formal education doesn't actually cultivate that lifelong sort of inquiry at all):
I had something as a child that I lost. That capacity I lost made paper into a million things; things I could cut out, paste up, fold, tear, wrap and fly. It made leaves into forests and the people in the books I read into close personal and private friends. As with many of the rest of you, this gift of being able to make images, to express wishes, to not as yet separate reality from fantasy, was educated out of me…
The most important lesson I have been learning from my own little boy is to relearn to ask the question “What if?” What if I were to make this bigger? What if I were to add a feather to it? What if I were to roll it in ashes? What if I were to write “I love you” on it? If I like doing this so much, what if I were to keep doing it? What if I were to stop and go to lunch? I ask the “what if” question a lot. Sometimes, especially when I'm teaching children, I start a chorus of “what if's” and am soon joined in and drowned out in these musical questions. The thing is, I'm learning that if you ask “What if” often enough, you begin not only to believe it but to know that it is possible to play again (“playing” can be very serious indeed), to make things that aren't happening for you, happen. That you can turn yourself on or in by asking yourself and your clay, or your husband, or your child, or your yarn, or your paint, or the day, “What if I were to put a cherry on top of it? What if I were to take away all the decorations and let you stand naked? What if I made lists of 'what if's' in my journal?” The thing is, our clay can take and support the shape of our questions. The fact is, it needs them.
Typing this out, it seems to me like maybe there's an ethos in this passage—and in Paulus's work, as in Lynda Barry's—that defies and/or resolves the student-teacher binary. When he talks about asking “What if?” as a teacher until his students join in and eventually take over, what is that but a vision of teacher not as inculcator or even simply guide, but as a modeler of studenthood? So many of the great teachers I've had—Edie, Geoff Sanborn, Noy, and others—have brought a sense of their own ongoing inquiry into the classroom, each in their own style and way, and laid it out for students to see and work alongside. Maybe Stephen Dedalus's division between teacher and learner is indeed a false one; maybe the good teachers are the ones that are always learners, always asking how not to waste their day, always leading that chorus of “What if?”
I certainly saw you modeling this in the class we taught together. I've said this before, and yet I'll say it again: I felt so lucky to be in that room with you, all those weeks. In a way that's really the truest experience of being a student and teacher all at once that I can recall—I was formally the latter, coteaching with you, but I was also always watching you work with our students, marveling at and learning from your conversational way with them and your ability to lead class while also constantly asking questions of yourself and of your interlocutors. And, too, I was learning from our students, of course: from Katly and her colorful storytelling and force of feeling; from Jackie and her fierce desire to write, her honesty; from Lukiki and her sweetness that almost—but doesn't quite, thankfully—hides her wicked curiosity and impish humor. As I write all this I miss them terribly, and lament, as I'm always lamenting, not getting to teach again with you!
And now lots of time has elapsed since I began this letter; the first words were written in February, and as I come to a close it's early April. It's been a hectic month or so for me. And now the world is hectic in a different way! All over Seattle there are bursts and dashes of color—magnolia flowers, cherry blossoms, camellias. It's spring. All the trees are budding out. I have to say I haven't missed the Northeast winter one bit; it's apparently been one of the driest seasons on record here, and Andrew and I have been fooled into thinking that Seattle in the earliest months of the year is a place where it's “freezing cold” when it's below 40 degrees, and where it's usually sunny and clear. In other words, it's heaven! I imagine you're perhaps seeing the earliest signs of life in Massachusetts, too, by now. I hope it and the classes and your own work are all full of that vigorous and wild spring sap. And I want to hear about it all very soon!
P.S. Last night I was sitting on the couch reading after doing some journal assembly (I think working on this letter has spurred me to finally get on it), and in the middle of some extraordinarily long sentence in The Golden Bowl, a memory of making my previous journal with you jolted back into my consciousness and I said to myself: Oh no! I was not supposed to cut the corners off the cover fabric before gluing it to the bookboard! I have a feeling my first unsupervised attempt might be a pretty messy venture. Maybe messy ventures are what it means to be “[a] learner rather,” though!
Hi dear Ear Mountain friends and readers! As you may have noticed, Ear Mountain went on an unannounced hiatus this past month… as is always the case for everyone, lots of things were happening, great things and annoying things and things somewhere in between, and I needed to take a break. But it's not over! (Melville to Hawthorne: “P.S. I can't stop yet. If the world was entirely made up of Magians, I'll tell you what I should do. I should have a paper-mill established at one end of the house, and so have an endless riband of foolscap rolling in upon my desk; and upon that endless riband I should write a thousand -- a million -- billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you. The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question -- they are One.”) Going forward, Ear Mountain will come out once a month, at the end of the month. Look for the next one when May is almost through!
(The story above is by former student Lukiki, in response to a prompt about inventing a fictional character and setting that character in motion within a scene. You find the fictions.)