Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Full Day

Today in class, we watched the absolutely amazing PBS documentary What I Want My Words to Do to You, about a writing group playwright Eve Ensler led inside the Bedford Hills maximum-security women's prison. The women's stories, and how they tell those stories, and how they reflect on how the outside world views their stories, are all incredibly moving. If you haven't seen this, order it from Amazon or Netflix and watch it. I plan to show part of it to both of my UNR classes this fall: since the DVD's 80 minutes and classes are 75, I won't be able to use quite the whole thing. Very frustrating!

This course has made me rethink my pedagogy, and I'm going to try a new approach in my writing workshop this fall. I think that will be good both for me and for my students, since I've been doing essentially the same thing for ten years now, and I've gotten a little stale.

I've been feeling pretty numb, hollow, and disconnected this week, though: as though I'm not catching on, as if everyone else in class is absorbing the material more easily than I am, and doing more valuable work. Today I whined about this a bit, and our teacher Sharon said (as I'd expected, since it's what I tell my own students), "Just keep writing, and you'll break through." This has happened to me in previous PSR summer courses where I indeed wound up having breakthroughs. The breakthrough usually happens right after I've allowed myself to be honest about my dissatisfaction with my experience in the course; and, sure enough, this week's epiphany came soon after class ended today.

One of the items I acquired in yesterday's shopping orgy was a small, inexpensive singing bowl. Sharon uses a chime to signal the end of writing exercises. I like that idea, and I love the sound of singing bowls, so I found a machine-made one that's easy for a westerner to play. It's a thoroughly fascinating object, despite or maybe because of its plainness.

Some classmates invited me to join them for lunch today. We planned to meet outside. While I was waiting for them, I was pondering Sharon's prompt for our journaling this evening. It's a line from May Sarton, "Now I become myself." I suddenly realized what I was becoming and how my hollowness can be a gift, and sat down and scribbled most of a sonnet, which I finished later in the afternoon (after a delightful lunch at Cafe Gratitude and an equally delightful ramble and conversation with my classmate Lydia, whom I convinced to buy a gorgeous Pashmina shawl). I don't think this works as a poem because there are too many abstract nouns, but as a piece of prose it communicates my epiphany well enough, so here it is:

Now I become myself, the singing bowl
whose emptiness makes music possible,
whose hollowness creates the ringing whole,
the notes we never hunger for until
we're lost in devastation, desolate
from terror, grief, betrayal. Harmony's
a childhood dream, we tell ourselves, and let
our bruised hopes rot, and celebrate. We're free.
Our heartbeats hammer in the empty space
left by illusion, caverns echoing
with every passing breeze, until we face
the friction of mortality, the thing
that circles the circumference of our soul
and rings it. We've become the singing bowl.

As I said, this phrasing is too abstract, but the idea's certainly one I can keep working with, and it's very helpful and comforting to me. For a few hours' effort, I'm pleased!

Meanwhile, I had a humbling cross-cultural encounter today. I went to say goodbye to A and told him about sand dollars (thanks for the info, BB!). He commented, "With inflation, they must need four or five of themselves to make a new one," which I thought was pretty funny. I gave him a bit of cash and said goodbye.

Walking back to the dorm, I said hi to J, who immediately called me over ("You get back here!") and started demanding that I give him money. I don't like being given orders, and in New York, I had a rule of never giving cash to people who tried to guilttrip me, so I told J I was low on cash. "You can go to a cash machine," he told me crossly, which turned me off further. I told him that no, I wasn't going to do that, and went to buy my supper at a burger place.

I ordered a lamb burger for myself, but the hamburgers were inexpensive, so I thought, what the hell, I'll get one for J. I did, and trudged back over to his corner holding the bag. "I don't like people demanding money from me," I told him, "but everybody has to eat. Here's a burger for you."

Yeah, I know: not too gracious! J crossed his arms and said, "Where's it from?" When I told him, he said, "I don't want it."

Mildly exasperated, I took the burger to A, who sympathized with me when I told him the story and promised me that he'd eat the burger, even though he needs to watch his weight. (He's hardly heavy, so I think that was a joke.) When I was walking past J again, though, he started reading me the riot act. "Did you ask me what I liked? Who are you to assume I like those burgers rather than something else? You didn't ask me. See, I thought you and I were going to get along, but I don't like you now. You're like a woman who stabbed me in the back once by telling me what I liked when I didn't like it. You even look like her."

"You're right," I told him. "Point taken."

The encounter wasn't exactly comfortable, but it was real, and both of us salvaged our pride. I didn't let myself be bullied, and he didn't let himself accept scornful charity. I admired his stance; he's right not to like me.

The takeaway lesson I get from this: I'm not obligated to let him coerce me into giving him money just because I'm a bleeding-heart liberal, and he's not obligated to accept handouts he doesn't want just because he's living on the streets. Each of us was interfering with the other's autonomy, and each of us very properly called the other out for doing so.

If he'd said "please," I'd probably have given him some cash. And if I'd said, "I won't give you money, but I'll buy you something to eat; what would you like?" he'd probably have accepted what I got for him. As it was, we were both angry and honest, which is better than being angry and guilty or beholden.

But I hope A enjoys the burger!


  1. Susan, I love that sonnet! I'm so glad you shared it! The imagery makes loads of sense. And a friend who leads my church's Taize services uses a singing bowl during them.

    Sounds like you had a very educational day. It may feel good that we've learned the lessons, but they're also exhausting aren't they?

    Peace! Hope! & Joy!

  2. I like how effortless your rhyming feels; these are my three favorite lines:

    ...Harmony's /
    a childhood dream, we tell ourselves, and let /
    our bruised hopes rot, and celebrate. We're free.

    Particularly our "celebration" of our rotted hopes: mine's an ambivalent reading, there is "freedom" in the "rot", fermentation, and yet, for me, there's a winesack I continue to carry, nurturing the inner ferment.

  3. I love singing bowls. I bought one when I was in the Program, the leadership training thing for lay ministers in our diocese.

    The head liturgist here uses one sometimes to signal the beginning of a liturgy. We were taught to not use words more than necessary -- the chime of the singing bowl is an effective signal to tell people that it's time to begin. Much nicer than saying, "hey, we're going to start now."

  4. Susan,

    Not only was it a delight to have you in my class this past week, but I was delighted to read your poem from the prompt, "Now I Become Myself..." The singing bowl is a wonderful metaphor--a wonderful container--for newfound joy and self discovery. Thank you so much for this.


  5. I think I am going to have to find a copy of that documentary. My mother is a teacher, I could probably give it to her for her birthday....


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