roaring twenties


Muriel Spark's Miss Jean Brodie proclaims, "The word "education" comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul."  

Jean Brodie is perhaps not the best teaching model on offer.  She's self -absorbed, peremptory, and disfigured, in the end, by her own hubris.  Trapped in a world that neither recognizes nor can appreciate her intelligence and desire, she gathers her girls around her and puts on the Brodie show. Despite her purported philosophy, her tragedy, and her crime, is that she is not capable of attending to, perhaps even interested in, the souls that teem around her.  She encourages only those desires and curiosities that feed her own story.

Yet there is something to what she says, after all, about the soul and its connection to teaching.

I have been teaching professionally for twenty-one years.  If you include parenting--and why wouldn't you?--I have been teaching for thirty years.  If you include being a devoted older sister, I have been teaching for forty-seven years.

I am a pretty good teacher.  Some days are better than others, but all in all, I add value.  That doesn't mean I never fumble.  I do.  And will again.  I cannot help but fumble, teaching being, to me, what it is: a foray, a hope, and a gesture.

The gesture is an embrace.

At the college where I work, performance evaluation is part of the process, the part administrators seem most to welcome and comprehend.  Many teachers become frustrated with evaluations because they tend toward quantification of learning, and while that's important to everyone involved, it doesn't quite get at the heart of what it means to engage a group of people ("learners"--duh) in a way that turns them, and the teacher, inward and outward simultaneously.  Yes, I suppose you can look at my students' sentences, essays, thinking patterns and measure the differences before and after they've spent a term with me and their fellow students.  I recognize my responsibility to the system insofar as it depends upon me and others like me to ensure that a certain body of knowledge--the way metaphor works, for instance, or the handiest methods for beginning a paragraph--is both explicitly required and reliably measurable.  After all, I do appraise learning, and in the crudest of ways, with grades.  Sometimes, when I am working my way through a stack of essays, I imagine grading them like we grade meat: prime, choice, utility, and so on.  I guess I am grading them that way.  It sums up a certain kind of learning, perhaps, but just as often sums up a certain kind of person, or a certain pattern of experience, in that the grade (and all teachers know this) has as much to do with what the student brought to the room as with what he or she learned there.

Students get at this in short form when they say "I'm an A student" or "I've always been about a C in English."  These statements make me sad, and I always protest them (I may not be right, but sadness is a clue).  How can I, how can a system made up of nine parts bureaucracy to one part exploration, ever tell you what you are?  How can any system, whatever its make-up, tell you what you are?  And as long as you let the system's crude rubrics tell you what you are, how can you be free?  And if you're not free, what is the point of teaching and learning? 

How can we embrace?

A young man who spent time in a couple of classes led by me has moved on now to become a teacher himself.  In the midst of his teacher-training, he asked me to say what I thought teaching was about, or rather, what make teaching good teaching, or perhaps it was, what's the point?

My answer was a blurt: something has to happen there (wherever there is--the site of teaching) that couldn't happen anywhere else.  

What I meant, what I should have said, is love. I should have told him and will tell him, should he ever ask again, the secret is love.

To teach and learn, we must love.  That doesn't mean we must think each other, or ourselves, the most wonderful beings imaginable.  (Who, in any case, could truly love the most wonderful beings imaginable?   They would be like the planets, brilliant and moving and far away.)

But it does mean we must love the very thing we are all talking about, the knotty and nuanced experience of being human.  It means, to me, that we must be open to the humanness of the students, and of the teacher, and even of all those people who are not in the room.

When I talk to other teachers about teaching, I hear a lot of lamentation.  They're overworked, for one thing, in ways that people who do not teach cannot imagine.  This is, perhaps, one of the reasons our culture so resents teachers even while it lauds them in the abstract--we don't actually know, unless we are in it ourselves, what kind of energy it takes to try to meet a various set of minds, over and over again.  That energy is often the primary energy in the classroom.  I have certainly had the experience of feeling I was stretching my own personality over a chasm of anxiety and distraction, making of myself a kind of bridge from the idea to the preoccupied mind that I am trying to engage.  But teaching goes best when I not only make that bridge, but cross it.  Or better, allow them to cross it to me.

Teaching goes best when I love, for when I love, I am not the only energy in the room. I am not alone.

To love in the classroom, I must bring to it all my pain, all my joy, and all my wonder.  Especially my wonder.  How did we arrive where we are?  How can we be better?  What is it to be a human being?  What is it to try to touch another human being?  In part, it is to admit that connection is both the most desired thing and the most difficult.  To admit that when I come to the classroom, I come full of need, and that my students do too.  Not all of those needs are visible.  What do I know of the worries that keep my students awake?  What have they survived?  What do they fear they cannot survive?  What are their pains?  Their joys?  Where is their wonder?  If I allow myself to imagine them in their place of speaking and being, I know more than I think I do.  If I push that knowing away, I have nothing left but facts and standards.  Facts and standards are not teaching. 

But I want more than knowing.  I want to be open to not knowing.  I want to be a question mark and not a period.  I want to let my students know that I am imagining their souls and am curious about whether what I am imagining is close to what they imagine about themselves.  I want to let them imagine me, my soul.  That means being human, and I can only do that, I think, if I love what it is to be human and so love the humans I meet, semester after semester, in the grey-drone rooms where we read poetry, and laugh at ourselves, and face the truth, whatever it seems to be.

That is to say, for me, teaching and learning have to do with something like tenderness in the face of human vulnerability, for vulnerability is the conduit to knowledge.

Miss Jean Brodie is right about leading out what is already there in the pupil's soul.  But first, the teacher must take in the awesome reality that there is a soul, and it's present here, now, in this room, throbbing with feeling and ever-changing.  Then the teacher might learn, and if the teacher learns, then teaching might happen.  We are all aching, so why hide it?  Why not love and be loved for the ache itself? 

I allow another human being, the great-souled E.E. Cummings, to say it for me: "I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing / than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance."

roaring twenties


Last night, I went with a couple of friends to see the latest adaptation of Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Fukunaga.  I hadn't been yearning to see it, the way I sometimes yearn to see a new film by a favorite director.  No, though I was impressed by Fukunaga's Sin Nombre, I went to see Jane Eyre with something less than eagerness, almost with a sense of obligation.  First, there's the professional curiosity--I am an English teacher, after all--shared by my companions, another teacher and an ex-student finishing degrees in English and Creative Writing.  Second, there's the importance  to my personal mythology of the novel, and, indeed, of Jane herself, perhaps my truest fictional companion these many years.  My relationship with both the novel and the character made it a certainty that I would eventually see this film.

I've seen other versions, though not all.  The Robert Stevenson version, starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles.  The Zefferelli version, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt. Television versions starring Susannah York and George C. Scott,  Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton, Samantha Morton and Ciaran Hinds, and Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens respectively.  All of these have something to recommend (Timothy Dalton makes a good Rochester, and the landscapes in Fukunaga's version are a beauty to behold) and something, many things, to condemn (Susannah York, plain?  William Hurt, forceful?).  All in all, they've all disappointed. 

And why is that?  Well, there are two reasons: on the one hand, they let the novel down; on the other, they let me down.

As to the first reason, there is initially the question of balance.  Jane Eyre is a curious blend of plots and styles.  It contains three stories.  That of the orphaned girl discarded and discredited by those in power, who finds her way and her strength, despite the petty tyranny waged against the vulnerable, particularly girls without beauty or wealth.  That of the plain young woman with the heart of flame who loves and suffers for love, and rejects the compromise that suffering seems to demand.  That of the placeless, loveless survivor who resists the call to sacrifice issued by the ambitious man who would be her savior.  In all three, Jane Eyre claims a prominent place in the pantheon of heroines tossed upon the seas of fortune and social expectation.  Many films--Robert Stephens' version comes to mind--neglect the latter plot entirely, likely in the interest of time and as a sop to the narrative conventions of film, which always prefers a straight line to a collage of imagery.  This is a grave error, for this portion of the novel, about a third of its length, gives us a Jane seasoned by experience and offers a crucial variation on one of its major themes: that one must, one MUST, preserve the still small voice amid the loudest exhortations from without.  Jane's resistance in the face of St. John Rivers' moral persuasion is fundamental to what Bronte has to say about the struggle to be good and still to pledge allegiance to the self.  This has been Jane's battle throughout, and here, where she knows loss in its fullest measure, her struggle is most acute, for she has only herself to lose, and to that further loss, she says no. 

Of course, like many novels of its time, Jane Eyre is intensely dialogic.  That is, its people talk.  And talk.  The relationship between Rochester and Jane in particular is based on conversation.  This presents an obvious challenge to a filmmaker, for long and intricate conversations do not lend themselves to filmic representation.  The novel is not dialogic, however, in the Bhaktinian sense.  Indeed, it is severly monologic, and not just in the way that the fiction of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy is monologic.  Bronte is a master (a mistress?) of the single inner voice, delving into first-person narrative in a way that few of her major colleagues, if we may call them that, did.  This is, for me, one of the great draws of Bronte's fiction--it is intensely personal, and she will not for a second allow the reader to wander into the minds of her other characters, except insofar as they can represent themselves in conversation.  Jane Eyre is the ultimate "I," and by giving voice to "poor, obscure, plain, and little" Jane, Bronte strikes a most powerful blow against classism and patriarchy.  Giving the narrative to Jane is one of Bronte's most political moves.  Whenever we give a voice to those who typically have no voice, we assail power at its most fundamental.  And for women writing romance, even failed romance,  in the nineteenth century, but, perhaps, even beyond, that move continues to be political.  It is their way of crying out "when you find you have no voice at the world's tribunals, and that no one will speak for you," as Anita Brookner, one of Bronte's many inheritors, has put it.

Beyond their unwillingness to offer us Jane Eyre in its entirety, most adaptations of Bronte's novel fail, somehow, in their representation of Jane herself.  They do not do this intentionally, of course.  They do it because they take her to be less than she is.  They take her to be made by love, and unmade by it, when this is not so.  They mistake the situation for the character, and this is, to me, an unforgivable mistake.  After all, even Rochester, in all his arrogance, does not make this mistake.  And as much as one can accuse Bronte of romanticizing male power and female vulnerability--indeed she does--it shocks me that no filmmaker has yet had the insight to understand the core of Jane Eyre, a most uncompromising woman in a novel full of characters who define themselves by their compromises. 

Which brings me to . . . me.  Jane Eyre and me. 

I was an adolescent when I first read the novel, and it imprinted itself upon me like no other novel had.  Its very beginning--"There was no possibility of taking a walk that day"--spoke to my restlessness, my feeling of capture.  And though Jane goes on to talk of her relief at not having to brave the drear weather, the sense of enclosure and threat of violence so aptly rendered in its opening chapter, which ends with Jane being conveyed all unwilling to the dreaded red room, spoke to my soul.  I have been a voracious reader of fiction for many years, and yet few scenes are so clearly visible to my inward eye as those scenes of Jane's early struggle to be heard.  Jane in the red room, Jane in the long shadow of Mr. Brocklehurst, Jane in the carriage that bears her to Lowood school, Jane eating burnt porridge and still hungry, Jane upon a chair, the label of deceiver unfairly hung upon her.  I trembled at the injustice; I pined for understanding; I knew the loneliness of the plain and passionate Jane.

For I was Jane.  No matter that where she tied a bonnet I pulled on a pair of 1970s culottes.  We were one.  Or were we?  Jane spoke out, and suffered for it.  I, on the other hand, rarely spoke at all, was deemed incapable of speech, though the words piled up in me like dandelions filled the prairie lawns of my neighbourhood.  I was all soul and no voice, and Jane spoke for me.  No one listened, or, if they did, they listened with scorn. I took heed, and kept my words to myself.  But Rochester listened, and this is why the novel is, I think, so powerful for so many women.  However gothically self-pitying and domineering Rochester might have been, he took Jane seriously.  And that was what she wanted.  And that is what I wanted too.

Everything about her was indivisible from my own self.  I was lonely beyond all reckoning, yet I found some solace in the limited friendship of other girls.  Jane Eyre is about, among other things, the potential comfort of female compatriots.  Helen, doomed Helen, presages Mrs. Fairfax and Mary and Diana Rivers, the sisters-under-the-skin who offer Jane the sweet beauty of friendship.  And, indeed, the reason Rochester wins out over St. John Rivers is that he knows without questioning that friendship is the very core of love.  And passion.  Jane is a passionate woman, and Rochester promises to draw close to the furnace of her passion and feed it further.  But how can  she presume to such passion, plain as she is?

For a girl, like me, plain to the point of homeliness, Jane was a powerful precursor.  She was there to remind me that my raging soul was not an embarrassment but a fire to be nurtured down the long, dark pathways of humiliation and rejection, that my mind, burning like a candle in an abandoned mine, was not an unwelcome intrusion but a light to see by.  When Jane cried out against the eradication of her personality, my heart swelled with hope.  I was no Blanche Ingram, and the world was full of them, but I was something.

The truth is, of course, that Jane Eyre both confirmed my humility and promised me that it would pay off, that my ugliness would be undone by love.  In this way, the novel has been a negative script for me, leaving me waiting for a Mr. Rochester to see me for what I was, to grasp me.  This is the destructive plot that has served as a prototype for many a romance narrative, wherein the plain girl blossoms only under the eyes of the powerful male viewer.  But in another sense, Jane was my warrior guide through a world that would repeatedly dismiss my lesser beauty and miss entirely my great intelligence, through a world that still valued women primarily for their shape and their ability to reflect the vanity of men.  Rochester knew Jane for what she was--brave, competent, and true.  Jane cried out against the world that would put all that aside because she had neither the beauty nor the position to use her gifts.  Because of her, I knew that I must "keep in good health and not die" until I had achieved what I meant to achieve.  Love was part of it, but not all of it.

I have read Jane Eyre several times since that first time.  I more easily see now its gender cliches and its implausibilities, but its heroine continues to spark my imagination and win my respect.  The book has become, I suppose, something of a talisman, accompanying me as I try to become myself.  Though the novel ends with a nod to conventionality in Jane's happily married state, her long isolation and her strength of character in the face of it somehow blot out that ending or, at least, invite me to imagine Jane burning fiercely right up to the end of her life, fighting all the while to remain herself.  For a husband might be an obstacle to self-assertion as well as the prize for it; one must remain dedicated to oneself.

It stands to reason that no one has made a film of Jane Eyre that satisfies me. Every version I've seen doesn't really listen to Jane, compromises, in fact, the Janeness of Jane.  And, though it's a lesson that I must relearn time and again, Jane taught me not to compromise and not to accept compromises in others. 

roaring twenties


What have I done since I used to post so often in this journal?

Have I lived many lives since then, or just one life spinning out, seeming more impossible when viewed as a whole than when lived in little parts?

I have purchased a great deal of food, hefting oranges to check for juice, comparing cheeses.  I have chopped and peeled.  I have blended and sauteed and rendered and seasoned.  I have arranged on plates.

I have wiped and washed and dried and put away the things that constitute a home, the glasses and socks, the bowls and towels.

I have sat at many tables and desks, talking earnestly and listening to others talking earnestly.  Earnestly, but with a dollop of irony.

I have walked many kilometres of concrete. 

I have ridden the ferry often.  I know those vinyl seats, those cold handrails, the side-to-side of the whole enterprise.

I have read many words and written some too.  Words seemingly in ever possible arrangement, except with words, there is always another arrangement, and another and another.  There is no "every."

I have seen seasons wax and wane, as spring is now waxing, with its first nubbly stems and its birches whitening against the fronded evergreens, its curled crocuses cold in the grass's velvet, the sky lingering later each day, turning to look over its shoulder, not quite ready to go.

I have cried many tears, with others and alone, but mostly alone.  I have also laughed, for this is also part of living.

roaring twenties


Personal circumstances have made it difficult this year, for perhaps the second time in my life, for me to read as much as I would like to and am normally inclined to read, but I've read these:

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson
Jamaica Inn by Rebecca Du Maurier
The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
The Cave by Jose Saramago
Thinking for Yourself by Marlys Mayfield
Checker and the DeRailleurs by Lionel Shriver
The Summer of Katya by Trevanian
Burning Bright by Helen Dunmore
Her Fearful Symetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Dahanu Road by Anosh Irani
Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich
Certainty by Madelaine Thien
Villette by Charlotte Bronte
Chalcott Crescent by Fay Weldon
Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd
Private Life by Jane Smiley
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
Diaries: Captain Scott's Last Expedition by Robert Falcon Scott
Help Your Teen Beat an Eating Disorder by James Lock and Daniel Le Grange
River of the Brokenhearted by David Adams Richards
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Every Lost Country by Stephen Heighton
Lilian's Story by Kate Grenville
The Love We Share Without Knowing by Christopher Barzak
Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munro
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Lapsing by Jill Paton Walsh
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink
To The End of the Land by David Grossman
In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut
Room by Emma Donaghue
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

roaring twenties


Did spring ever wear so many fabulous frocks as she does when she comes out on the island?

I've been writing letters half the day--letters for work, a letter to the beau, a letter to an ex-student-- and I begin to wonder whether all the energy I put into professional and personal communications could go into some other sort of writing.  If so, am I slowly bleeding myself?  But how did those writers of old keep up with their many correspondents?  Rilke wrote letters to a young poet.  Dylan Thomas wrote letters to everyone, especially if they were at all likely to a) worship him or b) fuck him. 

If I thought someone was likely to want to a) worship me or b) fuck me, would that be inspirational?  Maybe, maybe not.  Maybe I would still rather wander through Ross Bay Cemetery with headphones in than buckle down.  But I digress.

The great writers always wrote letters.  But they also just . . . .wrote.  (Yes, yes, they didn't have FB or GMail chat or whatever, but you digress.)

Will my writing life be different once the beau moves back to Canada?  I know, for instance, that I have neglected this journal most shockingly.  I am sure someone remembers the days when I used to wax wordy about all manner of things (too many, I admit, trivial).  What happened to the film contemplations?  What happened to the bit about Psycho that I was going to develop into a full-fledged piece?

But work is crazy and not conducive to inspiration.  I need a holiday.  Then I'll write more.  Sure I will.

roaring twenties


I seem to have lost a tiny bit of weight, as I find this morning that all my pants are hanging on me and I seem to look like a clown whatever I try on.  Trying to get ready for work but I'm left with just a couple of things that fit.  It's true that my appetite has diminished as my preoccupation with my beloved has intensified, so I guess that's why.  How annoying, though.  I have neither time nor money for clothes shopping.

roaring twenties


Perhaps Victoria's greatest natural treasure is gone.  If you've never read her work, do.  If you ever had the chance to hear her read or to meet her after a reading, be glad.

This Heavy Craft

The wax has melted
but the dream of flight
I, Icarus, though grounded
in my flesh
have one bright section in me
where a bird
night after starry night
while I'm asleep
unfolds its phantom wings
and practices.

             P. K. Page

roaring twenties


Time to get back to work, dammit.  I am not ready.  I am never ready.

Last night
[info]superfoo had her birthday dinner and I was pleased and grateful to be among the celebrants.  We were only missing [info]marri .  I had (and still have) a cold that's making me heavy and uncomfortable, but was much cheered by the company.  At one point, though, as I watched Sup[erfoo talking with animation about something, I felt this stab of sadness in anticipation of her departure one day for other climes.  How I will miss you, girl!

And I stammered like an Edwardian schoolgirl when asked about the beau.  What has happened to me?

When I came home, he was up, though it was 3AM in Brazil, so we watch Breakfast at Tiffany's together  on the phone and then, because I was sick, I got into bed with the phone and he said sweet things to me (things like "caring for you is part of who I am now" and more), and read me poetry (Yeats and Thomas) until I started to drift off.  He has a wonderful voice.  Then he read me the book I gave him for Christmas, The Giving Tree, as the rain pattered the window, and I drifted off to sleep.  It was cozy.

Meetings today--cranky and ill-infomed people, no doubt.  Oh well, with all the sweetness in my life lately, I need some sour to balance it out!  Breakfast now, and then out into the pouring rain. 

roaring twenties


This year's list, whole books only.

The Northern Clemency
by Philip Hensher
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant
A Mercy by Toni Morrison
The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee
Author, Author by David Lodge
Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
An Open Swimmer by Tim Winton
Dunedin by Shena McKay
The Open Door by Elizabeth Maguire
Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
The Imposter by Damon Galgut
Sylvia and Ted by Emma Tennant
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
The Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Asylum by Patrick McGrath
In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
The Good Parents by Joan London
The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Drowning with Others by James Dickey
Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The Parasites by Daphne DuMaurier
Light of Day by Graham Swift
Fergus by Brian Moore
The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh
Open Arms by Marina Endicott
The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
The Bookseller by Matt Cohen
The Deposition of Father McGreevy
by Brian O'Doherty
The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
Goldengrove Unleaving by Jill Paton Walsh
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith
Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean
The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt
Winterwood by Patrick McCabe
Love and Summer by William Trevor
by Joseph O'Neill
Anagrams by Lorrie Moore
The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien
The Lonely Girl by Edna O'Brien
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
A Bit on the Side by William Trevor
Girls in Their Married Bliss by Edna O'Brien
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Cloudstreet by Tim Winton
The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
The Plague by Albert Camus
Family Album by Penelope Lively
The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes
Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau
Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee
Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith