Radical Patience

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Urban life seems to tell us that only fools show patience. If you’re waiting in line, and the people in front of you are just dawdling, then it’s on you to urge them to move along. Or if you apply for a job and hear nothing for several months, there’s no virtue in staying silent; unless you make an inquiry, you may find yourself waiting indefinitely. It seems that the people who accomplish things are those who take existence by the horns and shake it up. It is those movers and shakers–legs in the air, hands gripping the Toro–who actually matter, or so it seems.

Celebrity lore perpetuates this idea. Famous people get huge book deals, and their books get *everyone* talking. Famous people make hugely influential films about social issues. Famous people influence election outcomes, for better or for worse. Whenever these take a bite from a celery stalk, they send a tremor through the press. According to these exemplars, any worthy accomplishment in life comes loudly, with grand echoes; if your work lacks such dramatic response, it basically doesn’t exist.

But this celebrity model distorts things. Many accomplishments such as writing require not only persistence and “grit” but a subdued quality known as patience. The right kind of patience is far from foolish; taking time with things, letting them unfold, you come closer to understanding their nature. Patience allows for sorting and recombination; it puts immediate passions in perspective.

In this sense, patience does radical work. It rips a person away from immediate reactions and demands, away from the distortions of glitz and fame, into a perception of things that matter. It has dangers, of course, especially when combined with wishful thinking; a person can wait and wait for nothing at all. It needs the mediation of good judgment.

Working on my book, I needed more patience than I first expected. I initially thought it would get snatched up by an agent–or rather, I thought this was expected of me. People were surprised to hear that I would devote a year to writing when I didn’t even have a publisher, so I thought, “I’ll have one soon.” It takes time to find one; not only that, but there’s something to be said for the time involved. It allows for serious thinking and revision along the way.

It is too soon for me to say anything definite, since I don’t have anything definite–but in terms of publication, I see some light ahead. Whether or not this light is for me, I don’t know. But the book will make its way into print, and the time will have helped it. I don’t think it would be where it is now if someone had seized it right away.

Too much waiting does no one any good; it can turn into sloth or procrastination. But I am not talking about either of those things; while waiting, I have been working on the book and doing many other things.

How, then, does patience differ from grit? With grit, you are the one in control; with patience, not so. Patience is essentially passive (as its root suggests); this quality doesn’t get much respect in our “go for it” culture. But certain kinds of passivity make room for good; moreover, passivity and activity often combine. Patience does not equal a long nap or, at the other end of things, a long scream. It’s somewhere in the background, but not too far; while letting things happen, it stays alert and taut. It exists only alongside impatience; there is a time for waiting and a time for saying “enough.” When to do which? To choose between the two, one must be capable of both; the bold word holds hours of holding back.

 

I took the photo in Albertirsa, Hungary.  “Pékség” means “bakery,” and baking, in many situations, requires patience. (Then again, it can also be done in a rush.)

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

 

Why This Blog Is Not a Teacher Diary

I recently came upon my first published education op-ed, “Learning from Parents.” It appeared in the New York Teacher in March 2007 (the spring of my second year of teaching) under the pseudonym “Otter.” The editor had encouraged me to use a pseudonym, not because my piece was in any way incendiary but because this was common practice for the “New Teacher Diaries” section, in which my piece appeared.

I am grateful for that first start. I soon decided, though, that I  did not want a pseudonym and did not want to be a teacher diarist. Now and then I do write about something that happened in the classroom or in my teaching life. But I stay away from the teacher diary formulas.

I know of no other profession that expects its members to write public diaries about  why they entered the profession, why they left, what makes it so hard, what makes it  so wonderful, etc. I think of musicians, writers, actors, dancers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, translators, scholars, rabbis, priests, and others; if they keep diaries, it is by individual choice. Only teachers have a ready forum and a set of prefabricated formulas for tales of classroom life.

Now, some teacher diaries offer insights that no study or report could approximate. They abound with wit and truth. But to have your teacher-diary published, you need only do the following, or something similar:

  1. Provide a standard title, e.g., “What No One Told Me About Teaching”;
  2. Make a vague reference to research (e.g., “Research tells us that 50 percent of teachers leave within the first five years”);
  3. Tell a classroom anecdote that connects to the title (this is the “diary” part);
  4. Offer a few bulleted takeaways;
  5. Include the title in the final sentence (e.g., “What no one told me about teaching is that it has to be learned.”)

The same goes for pieces titled “Why I Am Leaving My Teaching Job,” “Why I Am Not Leaving My Teaching Job,” “My Advice to Teacher Newbies,” etc. Why the demand for such pieces? I don’t know the answer but have a few thoughts.

First, there’s a genuine need for insights into the classroom. Although we all supposedly know the classroom (having spent a chunk  of our lives in one), we don’t understand what teachers do until (a) we become teachers or (b) we listen to them.  This is coveted and helpful information.

Second, education has been subjected to some unhealthy mystification. The “great teacher” and “bad teacher” are continually pitted against each other in pseudo-eschatological combat; it’s refreshing to hear from an actual person now and then.

Third, teachers welcome an outlet for thoughts. The school day has little room for reflection. A teacher diary assignment can offer an opportunity to assemble experiences and ideas.

All that said, I sense something less benign at work here as well. There’s something subtly condescending about the teacher diary format. It suggests (to the teacher and the world), “You, teacher, are best suited to writing from the first person, about your own experiences, because that’s what you know best.” In other words: stay in your little sphere of self; do not dare to speak about a field or idea.

As a result, the teacher diary often wraps itself in the coy gauze of “me and my own.” Many such pieces go “viral” now and then; few have lasting quality. Of  all the teacher diaries I have read over the years, maybe five have stayed with me. This has more to do with the mini-genre and its expectations than with the writers.

I would advise any ambivalent teacher-diarist: Do not confine yourself to this format. If it suits you, work with it, but be ready to break away. There is power in speech that finds its own form and in silence that comes from dropping the unneeded.

Two Kinds of Writers

In 1920, the humorist and actor Robert Benchley wrote in Vanity Fair,

There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not. Both classes are extremely unpleasant to meet socially, leaving practically no one in the world whom one cares very much to know.

In the spirit of this quote, I hope there are not two kinds of writers: those who like to discuss the writing process and those who do not. Both kinds, in my view, would be rather irritating, though I’d be a little more receptive to the second. There’s a time and place for discussing the writing process, and an eternity for not doing so.

Problems with discussing the writing process? There’s so much variety that one cannot draw any conclusions about a “right” way. What’s more, the “process” discussions tend to ignore substance. There are writers who revise constantly and those whose first draft is almost always their last. There are those who adhere to a strict routine and those who write whenever the ideas strike them. There are those who suffer terribly from writer’s block and those who have never known it. There are those who insist on writing in pen, or with the trusty Remington, or through dictation. In the end, I don’t care what they do, if the writing is good.

Yet staying mum is problematic too. There are writers who hold themselves above describing what they actually do; they insinuate that their work is mystical and untouchable, and that any mention of process is the mark of a lesser talent. Or they refrain from discussing it lest they expose a weakness–an embarrassing first draft, for instance, or an abundance of unfinished work. Silence is golden, but gold can be the ornament of a snob.

The ideal would be to talk about it sometimes but not all the time. Just how much would depend on the person’s judgment and circumstances. If you have been invited to speak to young people about your writing process, and have agreed to do so, then a secretive attitude is out of place. However, if you are at a tea party where people are going on about how they love “workshopping” their work (and you don’t particularly love doing that), then you have every right to maintain a happy hush.

I revise a lot. One thing I enjoy about having a blog is that I can come back and change things later. (When I do, I indicate this in a note at the end of the post, unless the changes are too minor to mention.) I rethink things continually; months or years later, I may see a better way of putting them. This is true for my nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. This morning I made some revisions to an old poem, “Jackrabbit.” It’s one of my favorites (of my older pieces), but the original version and even a later version had some strained parts. The current version will rest as is.

Jackrabbit

This land has never been painted properly.
Mix clumps of juniper with moonbeam blue,
Throw in a bit of tooth, a bit of song,
to fill the silhouette with bite and tongue.

This is a real dirt road with imagined doubts,
senses, untasted dangers, destinations.
Headlights sweeping the long floor of the wild
pan a jackrabbit back and forth in time.

Caught in the blank emergency of beams,
he dodges his dilemma with a brisk
“what if, what if” that dances him to death.
He could not find a way out of the way.

Earlier that day I was on the phone,
missing all your relevant advice.
A wire had got caught up in my throat,
an answer-dodger. It distracted me.

It trembled so fast that it numbed my tongue.
It did this while you were trying to talk.
I couldn’t listen well because the dance
had blurred all trace of consonant and sense.

I think now that this may have been a crash
of my old givens against your offerings:
new junipers, or ways of seeing them,
new countries, or ways of getting there.

When I hung up, there was no wire or word.
The moon was gone, the road a long fur coat
on some unwitting wearer, blissed and hushed.
I forgot all about it until years later.

You had said: “You can go left or right.”
Take me straight! I shouted. Straight to the remedy.
Gallop like the nineteenth century
down to the police station or cemetery.

Striding answerless, a station incarnate,
a cop ticketed me for not listening.
Now I can bear the rabbits and the wires.
I inch through forks and roadkill, listening.

Note: I changed three words (and fixed a formatting glitch) after the initial posting.

Self-Doubt in a Culture of Certainty

I wouldn’t call my current state an intellectual crisis, though it might be. A crisis implies a dilemma, where one no longer believes in one’s former way of living and thinking yet hesitates before the alternatives. For me, something quieter is going on. I see the possibility of another level of thinking and writing but have not reached it yet. So I question many a sentence of that I have written, many a concept that I have embraced. At this point, I don’t reject my former ideas but see a need to sharpen them. (The sharpening may lead to the discarding of some.)

Such periods of transition can be exhilarating and upsetting at the same time—exhilarating because of the new understandings, upsetting because of the embarrassment. For me, the mix is bitterer than it has to be, because I have taken a culture of certainty a bit too much to heart. We live in a world where people brandish their views (or the views of a group) and lash at those who disagree. Once they say their say, they stand by it. If they waver at all, then they’re perceived as weak. I see through most of this, but some of it gets to me anyway, as it seeps into everyday life.

To think well, you need some removal from that environment. You need room to consider whether you might be wrong—or whether you might have used a word carelessly or failed to consider a possibility. None of that is weakness, unless it turns into self-indulgence. The self-criticism, or assessment of one’s thoughts and words, needs both sustenance and defense.

It’s difficult to find a place for uncertainty. As a teacher, one often has to act more certain than one is. I don’t mean that one pretends to know things one doesn’t know, or states things as fact that are open to question. (I do that sometimes without meaning to do so; the words slip out of me, and I catch them.) Rather, one has to present the material in a coherent manner, and that often involves simplifications. I often walk out of class asking myself questions about the lesson I just presented or about statements I made. It is good to do this, if I then have time to think through those questions and read carefully. Often there’s insufficient time; I have to rush to the next class, correct hundreds of homework assignments, attend meetings, and catch up with paperwork.

So the time left in the day for thinking is scarce, and one must take good care to guard it. It is all too easy to get into an online discussion or argument where neither side is looking to be enriched and where little ultimately gets said. It is easy, also, to sound wiser than one is when in an ephemeral setting—to be a vanishing frog croaking over a vanishing marsh. How much effort I have put, at times, into blog comments that were later forgotten (as far as I know) by all involved!

Also, it is not just a matter of thinking over what one has said. One must read a great deal (of carefully chosen books) in order to think well. The books that help me think better are those with discernment and wit; those that go far beyond the slipshod; those that jolt me wisely, not cheaply; those that hold beauty. I have commented recently on one such book; I have more thoughts about it but will let them work in my mind. Other books have been on my mind too. In order to read such books, one must set aside protected time for them.

I speak in terms of protection because interruptions and temptations are many. In particular, one is tempted (or I have been tempted) to seek the “quick fix” of blogging and other online writing. I don’t take this to extremes—and I put thought into what I do post online—yet I know the satisfaction of getting responses (however few), including those that don’t challenge me. In subtle ways one can shortchange one’s intellectual life for a short-lived kick, a sense that one’s words reach someone. I want to do more than reach someone. I want to get to the bone of things worth saying—and say them in that bony yet graceful way. I want to say it in a book, because then it’s less likely to be read in a rush. (People do read books for quick “takeaways,” but it’s possible to make clear that your book is not of that sort.)

That’s the other side of it. At some point uncertainty must come to an end; one must lay out that sentence. That must not happen too soon, but it must happen. If holds back for fear of saying something incorrect or incomplete, then the fools (including one’s own internal fools) will have their way. Blaise Pascal said, “Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked.”  This applies to the writer as it does to to the person choosing whether or not to believe in God. One must say something, if that is what one has set out to do. But learning when to say it and when to hold back–learning how long to work on something before putting it forward–takes staunchness, vigilance, and a strong sense of measure.

The Importance of Saying Nothing

A piece about saying “nothing” seems like a contradiction, since the words preclude the “nothing” in themselves. But there is a “nothing” worth considering in words. It is the “nothing” of taking things into the mind without pushing anything out immediately: of spending an evening reading, thinking,  listening to music, working on a problem, or talking with a good friend. For those who write and blog frequently, it can be difficult to seize such “nothing.”  

Writers sense pressure to put something forward, over and over. They think they’re supposed to have something to say, day after day, even if it isn’t substantial. Supposedly, through scraping their feet on the surface of things, they will make a mark over time. Unfortunately, that sort of scraping will not be remembered in fifty years.  To have something to say, you must build it; to build it, you need to be quiet for long intervals. We are nervous about taking that time.  

The problem is not particular to the Internet era. The writer’s “voice” always risks crumbling into noise. Part of this is due to our culture of “empowerment,” which tells people to believe in themselves and to show this by putting themselves forward. Aspring writers are told to write, write, write—and publish, publish, publish. Practice is good, of course, but silence is also practice. We do not hear enough about the importance of slow research and reading, of holding the pen (or pattering fingers) still, or waiting before publishing a piece.  

What happens to the writer who takes the time to read and think? The view widens; objects come into clearer focus and arrangement. Patterns, rhythms form in the mind; phrases come back to memory. The writer sees how much has been said before—and instead of being intimidated, he or she perks up. The challenge now is not to churn things out but to join this interchange. I want to speak with Epictetus about his purple thread, with Ralph Waldo Emerson about the “glass tripod,” and with William Butler Yeats about “the winds that blow through the starry ways.” Of course, this will not take the form of interviews; I am not concerned with their explanations or motives, nor could I ask about them even if I wished. Rather, such conversation will show itself in a stronger sense of language, of rhythms and thoughts that have come before me.  

A bit of quiet allows a person not only to take things in but to form sound ideas and opinions. Sometimes we don’t know what we think about an event, policy, or tendency; while there is no harm in putting forth a hypothesis, a tentative view, it is sometimes even more satisfying to wait and see. One can treat oneself to reserve as though to a jewel.   

A carefully formed opinion can be both strong and tranquil. In 1931, Henry McBride wrote in the New York Sun: “Dr. Valentiner … has the typical reserve of the student. He does not enjoy the active battle of opinion that invariably rages when a decision is announced that can be weighed in great sums of money. He gives his opinion firmly and rests upon that.” (Marianne Moore quotes this in her poem “The Student.”) This restfulness is liberty, a house.  

Granted, writers are not made for vows of silence. They are garrulous at heart—or some are (most generalizations about writers are wrong). If they are fortunate, they have something to say and know how to say it well. But under their writing, some pressure of knowledge and discernment must build. It must swell up until the right phrases take shape and other possibilities fall away. That’s worth a bit of quiet, a gentle tumbling out of date and out of fame.