One night I begged Robin, a scientist by training, to watch Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' with me on PBS. He lasted about one act, then turned to me in horror: 'This is how you spend your days? Thinking about things like this?' I was ashamed. I could have been learning about string theory or how flowers pollinate themselves. I think his remark was the beginning of my crisis of faith. Like so many of my generation in graduate school, I had turned to literature as a kind of substitute for formal religio, which no longer fed my soul, or for therapy, which I could not afford.... I became interested in exploring the theory of nonfiction and in writing memoir, a genre that gives us access to that lost Middlemarch of reflection and social commentary.
I would not have majored in English and gone on to teach literature had I not been able to construct a counterargument about the truthfulness of fiction; still, as writers turn away from the industrious villages of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, I learn less and less from them that helps me to ponder my life. In time, I found myself agreeing with the course evaluations written by my testier freshman students:'All the literature we read this term was depressing.' How naive. How sane.
My music teacher offered twittering madrigals and something about how, in Italy, in Italy, the oranges hang on the tree. He treated me - the humiliation of it - as a soprano.These, by contrast, are the six elements of a Sacred Harp alto: rage, darkness, motherhood, earth, malice, and sex. Once you feel it, you can always do it. You know where to go for it, though it will cost you.
When I speak in Christian terms or Buddhist terms I'm simply selecting for the moment a dialect. Christian words for me represent the comforting vocabulary of the place I came from hometown voices saying more than the language itself can convey about how welcome and safe I am what the expectations are and where to find food. Buddhist words come from another dialect from the people over the mountain. I've become pretty fluent in Buddhist it helps me to see my home country differently but it will never be speech I can feel completely at home in.
Cultural wisdom says 'Don't quit your day job.' Yet I think these desires represent our psyche's stretch toward wholeness. And to be whole, as many religious tranditions teach, is to make manifest a unique face of God in the world. We don't want to be irresponsible, yet for every accountant who deserts his family and sails for Tahiti, ten American men have heart attacks at their desks, after hours.
I cleaned the shit off my pink high-tops and drove home, stopping for an espresso at the coffeehouse across from the college. Men and women were hunched over copies of Jean Paul Sartre and writing in their journals. Most wore the thin-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses favored by intellectuals. Their clothes were faded to a precisely fashionable degree; you can buy them that way from catalogs now, new clothes processed to look old. The intellectuals looked at me in my overalls the way such people inevitably look at farmers. I dumped a lot of sugar in my espresso and sipped it delicately at a corner table near the door. I looked at them the way farmers look at intellectuals.
Teaching English is (as professorial jobs go) unusually labor-intensive and draining. To do it well, you have to spend a lot of time coaching students individually on their writing and thinking. Strangely enough, I still had a lot of energy for this student-oriented part of the job. Rather, it was _books_ that no longer interested me, drama and fiction in particular. It was as though a priest, in midcareer, had come to doubt the reality of transubstantiation. I could still engage with poems and expository prose, but most fiction seemed the product of extremities I no longer wished to visit. So many years of Zen training had reiterated, 'Don't get lost in the drama of life,' and here I had to stand around in a classroom defending Oedipus.
There is a bench in the back of my garden shaded by Virginia creeper, climbing roses, and a white pine where I sit early in the morning and watch the action. Light blue bells of a dwarf campanula drift over the rock garden just before my eyes. Behind it, a three-foot stand of aconite is flowering now, each dark blue cowl-like corolla bowed for worship or intrigue: thus its common name, monkshood. Next to the aconite, black madonna lilies with their seductive Easter scent are just coming into bloom. At the back of the garden, a hollow log, used in its glory days for a base to split kindling, now spills white cascade petunias and lobelia. I can't get enough of watching the bees and trying to imagine how they experience the abundance of, say, a blue campanula blosssom, the dizzy light pulsing, every fiber of being immersed in the flower. ...Last night, after a day in the garden, I asked Robin to explain (again) photosynthesis to me. I can't take in this business of _eating light_ and turning it into stem and thorn and flower...I would not call this meditation, sitting in the back garden. Maybe I would call it eating light. Mystical traditions recognize two kinds of practice: _apophatic mysticism_, which is the dark surrender of Zen, the Via Negativa of John of the Cross, and _kataphatic mysticism_, less well defined: an openhearted surrender to the beauty of creation. Maybe Francis of Assissi was, on the whole, a kataphatic mystic, as was Thérèse of Lisieux in her exuberant momemnts: but the fact is, kataphatic mysticism has low status in religious circles. Francis and Thérèse were made, really made, any mother superior will let you know, in the dark nights of their lives: no more of this throwing off your clothes and singing songs and babbling about the shelter of God's arms.When I was twelve and had my first menstrual period, my grandmother took me aside and said, 'Now your childhood is over. You will never really be happy again.' That is pretty much how some spiritual directors treat the transition from kataphatic to apophatic mysticism.But, I'm sorry, I'm going to sit here every day the sun shines and eat this light. Hung in the bell of desire.
What to wear on a Minnesota farm? The older farmers I know wear brown polyester jumpsuits, like factory workers. The younger ones wear jeans, but the forecast was for ninety-five degrees with heavy humidity. The wardrobe of Quaker ladies in their middle years runs to denim skirts and hiking boots. This outfit had worked fine for me in England. But one of my jobs in Minnesota will be to climb onto the industrial cuisinart in the hay barn and mix fifty-pound bags of nutritional supplement and corn into blades as big as my body. Getting a skirt caught in that thing would be bad news for Betty Crocker.