One week ago we returned from spring break — and some spring break it was — to the classroom, now on line through Zoom. I’ve been teaching Creative Writing for many years. I love being with my students in the classroom. I learn from them, we exchange ideas. This particular class is working on one story each across the semester, turning in their work in installments. Their themes are the usual: grief, love, identity, desire, adventure–navigated sometimes with humor, always with the aim of discovery. In all my years of teaching, I’ve never felt as grateful for what I do. We get to interrogate stories, use stories to write our way out of the present, to seek to understand the past, peer into the future.
As it happens, my desk in my childhood home where I’ve returned to care for my mother, is in my stepfather’s study. Here he saw “patients” when I was a kid. He is long dead, his patients even further removed by time, but I remember them. They came for therapy–a nun, a pair of Shik brothers who wore turbans, an old lady who wet her pants. We kids, ten of us, had to be quiet when the patients came. They lay on a red velvet chaise and spilled their woes. The library was filled with books on sex and sexuality because my stepfather was not actually a therapist. Rather, he was a philosopher writing the definitive treatise on love. Like Edward Casaubon from Middlemarch, writing the Key to all Mythologies, my stepfather’s treatise was his life’s work, incomplete at his death. His study terrified me for the strange books that seemed to fall from the shelves, the red couch upon which the patients lay. But I sit here now, preparing for today’s class and on the bookcase in front of me, my desk apparently angled in the right direction, I see: Shelley, Byron, Homer, Plath, Rich, Dickinson, Eliot, Pound, Graves, Frost, Poe, Milton, Stevens, Thomas, Kinnell, Hughes, Lawrence, maybe too many men, but stories all the same, poems to save our lives, all of these poets dead and yet alive.
With my students, this particular group of eighteen, we are on an unexpected and epic journey into the unknown. Among other things, we are learning to carry on, to put aside terror, one word at a time.
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
As always, inspired by Jenny McPhee … who may still be in bed