Saturday, March 20, 2010

on a Saturday in early March 77 years ago, Franklin D Roosevelt stood behind a podium. In the face of a crushing Depression, he had been elected President, and was now facing a public that was skeptical about the government, that had no confidence at all in the banking system, and that was jobless and in some cases homeless in unprecedented numbers.

Sound familiar? It sure does to me.

FDR delivered his "nothing to fear but fear itself" speech, which is the part of his First Inaugural that people remember, when they remember anything at all about it. I was re reading that speech recently because a student of mine went to the FDR memorial in D.C. If you are ever in our Nation's Capital, you should go the FDR memorial. It is truly the most beautiful and moving memorial on the Mall, and I am saying this even though it is near the Lincoln Memorial, which might help put it in perspective.

As I was reading this stirring speech again, I was came across this:

"Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work must no longer be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they have cost us if they teach us that out true destiny is not to be ministered unto, but to minister to ourselves and our fellow men."

Change the "men" to "people" and this is a credo that we all could do well by adopting. Joy in the creative process, a feeling on everyone's part that we are all stewards of each other, and a disdain for simple wealth. If we could all think that way, this world would be a hell of a place.

Now we are being told that we are coming out on the other side of yet another situation in which the rich have lied and cheated, causing massive unemployment and the loss of homes and savings on the part of a great many Americans. The number of people that were surprised by the events of the last little while makes it clear that we all need to spend more time reading the story of what has come to pass already.

It also seems to me that it is usually the people who do no actual work that cause the problems. One does not seem to read about crooked carpenters or weavers or potters or writers very often. There seems to be something about people who make things that keeps them more or less honest. I wonder if there is something in the "thrill in the creative process" that Roosevelt wrote about, something in the work of turning raw material into a finished object or meal or house that makes one respect the person to who the finished thing will go enough that there is less impulse to lie or cheat. Maybe not. Maybe I am glorifying the worker for the sake of glorifying the worker, which is a tendency that I have, I know.

Either way, this weekend I intend to thrill in the creative process a little, myself. And to read some more of Roosevelt's words.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

time passes

The first college I went to was the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. It is a medium-sized state school, neither good nor bad, just what it is. I went there for theater because a mentor and teacher and good friend of mine went there. I really had no idea what the hell I was doing.

Somehow my parents steered me towards this "alternative" program called "Residential College," which was about 125 or so students living in an old beautiful brick dorm on campus. There were "core classes" we all took (though, truth be told, I was awash in hormones and was not able to really appreciate what was happening around me), and then we pursued our major outside of those. This college was created (I think) and run run by two amazingly patient and kind people: Murray and Fran Arndt.

I had them both for different classes. Murray was interested in Grail literature, and that interest that has stayed with me all these billions of years later; Fran got me into Mark Twain. Being that I have a tattoo of Twain's words on my arms, I would say that she had a pretty deep effect on me as well.

I did not do a good job of being a student at UNCG, and I did not pay as much attention as I wish I had. I sort of exploded into my own sexuality and workaholic narcissism, in the way that a lot of college students do. The more I work on methods of teaching, and the more I spend time with my students, the more I remember with chagrin this time.

Fran recently stepped down as Director. She had her hand on the tiller for decades, and of course someone else should step in. In the newsletter that we get in email she published the following letter. Virginia is her grand-daughter, Emily was her daughter. She passed last year. I apologise if it is a little specific to a particular moment in my own life, as opposed to the larger conversations that I try to have in this forum, but it was so touching and so well-written that I felt a need to reproduce it here:

Dear RCers and ARCers,

Time brings changes in names and in directors. This

will be my last letter as such, and it is difficult to know

what to say. Keats closed his truly last letter with “I

always make an awkward bow,” but then he was John

Keats, dying at 25 with some magnificent poetry to keep

him alive forever. I seldom bow and have not curtsied

since I was in piano recitals as a child. But it is hard to

say good-bye with any grace.

You and this program have been a large part of my

and Murray’s lives, more perhaps than you can imagine.

The names of students and even faculty who were and

are friends often elude us, but the actual people are

always firmly imbedded in memory. Still, I am glad we are

all wearing nametags at the reunion. It has been a good

ride, and you have taught me more than I have you,

although I do hope that some of my favorite books and

films stay with you and are passed on to your children. I

have heard more than once that Grail Literature has

messed up someone’s ability to just see a movie or read a

book without always finding patterns. Sorry. But

sometimes some patterns are helpful. Some of them even

give us the faith and courage to endure.

I am now often reading with Virginia the books that

were once mine and then Emily’s. It is good to believe

that some experiences with literature are able to link

generations. Some of you earliest RCers may already

know this, and I really must leave before grandchildren

begin to apply. I do look forward to hearing from you,

seeing you sometimes at Valle Crucis or reunions.

In the last years I am starting to believe that nothing

ever really ends, it just changes form. Ashby Residential

College will change forms; it must to survive. But the

same truth and spirit that Warren, Dick, Murray, and I

have found so important will remain.

My love (when I bow or curtsy I fall down),


I hope that I have this kind of effect on my own students, this kind of deep effect that gets under the skin and stays there. The kind that manifests without thought. The process of inquiry that makes it possible to find joy in the support beam of an old mill, or in watching a leaf slowly change color in autumn in the way that makes the memory of an old poem resurface.

Teaching in the moment is hard. Teaching from a twenty year remove is genius.