Monday, September 22, 2008


The weekend before last, I went to a memorial service for a former student, a woman more than 30 years older than me who was in one of the first classes I taught 15 years ago and who took my class probably at least half a dozen times over the years. She was full of life, with a slightly kooky manner at times, well educated, long divorced, the mother of a much-loved daughter with cerebral palsy -- and one of the best writers I ever taught, though she rarely published her work. Her career before I met her was at the Library of Congress, where she headed the poetry program and, among other things, assisted the various poets laureate. Whenever I saw her name on a class list, it was like someone had surprised me with a plate of cupcakes.

You hear a lot of talk about how students need respect and encouragement, but not much about how teachers need it too. Nancy always gave me both, particularly in the beginning of my teaching career. She was a great booster -- by her enthusiastic presence, in notes and e-mails she wrote, voicemail messages she left, and gifts she gave me.

For some reason I can't find any of the notes I remember her writing me, but today I received an e-mail from another former student, who wrote:

". . . I did think very fondly of your class when I saw the memorial notice for Nancy -- someone I might not have appreciated as much (older woman, a little nuts) if you hadn't helped the class see how wonderful she was."

I found the word "nuts" harsh, though I suspect she didn't mean it that way. There was nothing nuts about Nancy. I don't remember specifically doing or saying anything to make anyone see how wonderful Nancy was (I thought it was evident), but it was nice to hear that someone got that.

At the memorial service, a friend of Nancy's read the following poem by Stanley Kunitz:

The Layers
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Friday, September 12, 2008


I have to admit it was comforting to read this quote from National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia, an American Book Award-winning poet who announced he's stepping down from his NEA post early next year:

"I have done most of the things I set out to do. I really want to go back to writing. I haven't had time for my own writing. I write all the time for the NEA, official writing. Since I have become chairman, I have not published a poem."

It's hard to write when you have a demanding -- and, let's face it, often stimulating -- job. Sometimes it feels like I'm the only one who can't seem to manage it. Though I'm hardly an an American Book Award-winning writer and I don't exactly head a government agency with a multimillion-dollar budget.

Today I came off one of the most intense work deadlines in recent memory. I worked two 13-hour days in a row followed by a 12-hour day; on one of them the work was so relentless that I (1) forgot to vote and (2) missed a therapy appointment. On more than one occasion this week, I heard myself saying to a colleague, in the interest of calming the sea, "If I sound agitated right now, it has nothing to do with you." (On at least one occasion, it kind of did.)

But now that it's over, I have a satisfied feeling. I did some good work, and I'll have some good work to show for it.