livingstone, victoria falls, zambezi river, bovu island
“litany of no pattern except trouble and escapism,” Five Quarterly, issue no. 3
conference at lake malawi/nyasa with the sun, sand, mountains, moon, stars. activities: sunrise yoga and meditations, hammock-lounging, swimming, playing, purchasing fresh samaki and dagaa at the shore, trips to the local market for clay pots, stargazing–both at the sky and the water where fisherman boats light up the horizon. objectives: simplicity, gratitude.
Highlights: Arabic lessons from my driver, horseback riding (and galloping) at the pyramids during off-hours (Ramadan), kissing the Sphinx, sweet treats at the Nile during dusk, falafel at Tahrir Square.
I’m reminded of one particular class discussion during my graduate studies that pursuing writing is like trying to climb an invisible fence, per a 2007 NY Times essay by Jim Harrison called, “Don’t Feed the Poets,” which reflects on Karl Shapiro’s “The Bourgeois Poet” (1964). Among other things, Harrison brings up the concepts of social class and purpose. I wrote this:
As Harrison discussed the “heroic notion of the poet,” I considered my own experiences and if I ever felt this way—some romantic, idealistic goal of achieving immortality by writing a single great poem. I came to poetry through some form of idealism, but I never conceived of immortality. In today’s world, a name is merely that. And in the field of poetry, who but my colleagues and students would know my work? I must have thought, or expected, as an aspiring poet, that I would end up teaching. To become published was another goal, but I came to a realization early in my graduate studies about the amount of sheer luck it would take.
This made me question, then, why exactly I was driven to pursue poetry. Why did I want to reach for this invisible fence? I thought about other careers I considered (or were suggested to me)—doctor, scientist, chef, schoolteacher, journalist, linguist. All of them seemed limiting—definable, constricting, of this materialistic world. Somehow, I expected poetry to defy all of the agendas this world had thrown at me since birth. I wanted to be outside the realm of the routine. I wanted to be an artist—but not just any artist, a poet, a weaver of words, of emotion and intellect. Perhaps, in doing so, I could attain a self-actualized contentment with this insane world and make things tolerable.
As Harrison stated, though, I was struck by the “cruelty and lack of democracy in the arts.” I have since doubted my path into this indeterminable and subjective journey. I have made my peace with poetry’s avocation but perhaps I’m losing faith in its purpose in my life, at least at this point. I’m sure that I will never completely leave it alone, but for the time being, I lost my footing, trying to climb the invisible fence. Maybe I’ll look for another fence, one less canonized, critical, and well, impossible.
Five years later, I’m grateful that I’ve come to a better understanding about pursuing the fine arts. I’m now focusing on helping heal through narrative, rather than spending my time trying to climb this fence. Creativity is not a fence; it’s an integral part of our existence. I was reminded by a guest speaker, Gabriel Vockel, whom I invited to class yesterday to show his work, that all of us are indeed artists–the challenge is to remain as we grow up (per Picasso).
I’ve said multiple times in recent conversations that I probably wouldn’t be alive had it not been for poetry. It was and continues to be my form of therapy. Somehow, being enticed by the illusion of the poetry business, I lost sight of that for a few years.
I wish undergraduate creative writing programs and MFA programs were a little more honest and offer a broader perspective about what exactly pursuing this field entails. It’s an investment in apprenticeship, as one mentor states. It won’t guarantee you a job. Some try to package it as “Oh, you’re getting a terminal degree in your field” and “Oh, you can teach at universities.” These programs are very good with presenting a romantic idea: NYU’s undergraduate creative writing program, for instance, offers a month in Paris as part of their workshops. My question is, are these students told about invisible fence? Or do they simply think their chances are better if they pursue creative writing degrees? Do they know that the return on their investment is pretty much nil? (The only way I can justify an MFA now is if the program offers full fellowships to all students.)
Some honesty about the likeliness of one getting a secure job in the field would be nice, or how adjuncts have increased from 20% of faculty in the 1970s to 70% now. Sure, you can teach at universities–if you’re independently wealthy, don’t need job security, have a spouse with health insurance, and don’t mind waiting around for someone to die before you can be offered a full-time teaching position. And oh, you’re also competing with PhDs in your field, so you might consider spending another 5 years of your life getting one and living under “sustained poverty” through stipends.
It would be even better to offer students the opportunity to acquire skill sets that will help them actually survive in the world without being demoralized in the process. We pursued writing because we are sensitive to the world; help us function in it. (This statement goes beyond writing programs but higher education in general.)
While our family will never be same without you, we are at peace that you are in a better place. Your job here was done, and we’re all equipped now to handle whatever the world brings our way. You’ve taken care of this family—our Ayes clan—the best way you could, and for that, your legacy remains, deep in our hearts.
You tried to piece a life together, after being broken by it, and you returned to our home in San Jose to live a simple, quiet life. Some would think that living “back to the basics” is a kind of failure, but they do not see the beauty in it—to be free of society’s expectations for what makes a man, a good man, a father, a good father. These are not dictated by material wealth but solace in having done what you could for your loved ones and giving us a way to achieve our own dreams. Many more people fail in ways that you didn’t and never have—support, presence, and guidance for all of us. You’ve taught us that family values and integrity matter over everything else. Thank you for preparing us; thank you for being an example of love, integrity, and compassion.
We have always been close, so much so, that I wouldn’t let you leave me during the first week of kindergarten. You stayed in the back of the classroom until I was ready to let you go. And while I don’t remember the times as an infant when you took me on your tricycle to the beach at night because I couldn’t fall asleep, my soul remembers how soothing it was to be held and loved and have the ocean’s breeze to calm my worries. It was going to be a difficult life, and I had you there to help me be stronger.
I was the spoiled one—the one whose nickname was painted in big red, rusty colors above our store, the one who wouldn’t leave your side and preferred the floor next to your bed instead of her own room. We only had one fan, and you would direct it on me so I could sleep. Some years ago when I was twenty, you remembered this. I visited you in Houston, Texas, and before heading to bed, you turned on the fan, although it was 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I asked, “Why did you turn that on?” You said, “So you can sleep.”
I am grateful for the few months last summer, when you and I were “re-united” again, after “our separation” when I was ten years old. I decided to return home to write and travel, but I gained much more than I could imagine, which was precious time with you and our family.
I’m grateful to know that your early morning ritual included old love-songs that you played on a stereo from your side of the house.
I’m grateful for you accommodating my Filipino and American requests—puto AND kuchinta in the morning, please, and only fish (no meat) during lunch and dinner, and extra vegetables. You said, “The least I can do when you return home is to be able to feed you.”
I’m grateful to have been there as you pursued one of your dreams: to finish college. You never had the chance to pursue because you were taking care of us. You were so excited, although you didn’t show it. You bought a new wooden desk and got a haircut. On your first day, you were dressed in a white polo shirt and white pants, as the college requires. You had your yellow book-bag and hopped onto your motorcycle, and out you went through our red gates to go to a nearby town for class.
You would complain later about the 60 students packed in the classroom, without air-conditioning or a fan, or even textbooks. The last reason—the lack of a textbook—is the reason you cited that you needed my help: to find a poem and write an analysis of it. I laughed about the irony: I’m helping you with homework—or rather, doing the homework for you because you claimed not to understand poetry. And at your age, you said, you didn’t have the patience.
I would help you with other subjects, too: clarifying concepts for a business class, which you understood more clearly, as I asked you specific questions about your own business experience. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to connect with you.
We also learned together this summer, that your attempts of being overprotective wouldn’t work now that I’m grown up. You said to not talk to politicians around town—not to meddle in political affairs—in order to help clean up our hometown and preserve its rural beauty. I didn’t agree about fearing consequences; and I attribute to you some of this fiery spirit.
I indicated that I’m old enough to know what’s best for me, which is to pursue what I believe in, being an agent of change rather than complying with the status quo. The best thing that a parent can do is to enable the child to learn this.
And likewise, you didn’t agree with my beliefs when I criticized you continuing to smoke: “I’d rather die happy,” which showed me that you will be the same stubborn, beautiful father you’d always been.
I remember a conversation one rainy afternoon, when the water generator had spewed dark smoke and ended its 25-year reign. You talked about digging a hole under the mango tree, near the well, a “jacuzzi,” where you can rest in cool water when the sun would be overbearing in the summer. I could just imagine you, content and resting.
Daddy, there is never a way to repay you for your sacrifices. We could only honor you by not wasting away our lives on frivolous things and not being afraid to love and dream.
I’ll close this letter with the poem that we chose for you to recite in class. The only criterion you gave was that it should be short because you had to memorize it. I chose a translation of “Despedida,” meaning “Farewell,” by Federico Garcia Lorca. I explained to you that the speaker of the poem is contemplating eternity, the next passage, and how he’s not afraid of it. He welcomes what’s to come, because, perhaps, he’d already lived a beautiful life and has no regrets. He requests for the balcony to be left open so he can appreciate both this dimension—the boy eating oranges in the street—and the next—the reaper harvesting the wheat. Perhaps, our spirits were preparing our goodbyes then—
If I die,
leave the balcony open.
The little boy is eating oranges.
(From my balcony I can see him.)
The reaper is harvesting the wheat.
(From the balcony I can hear him.)
If I die,
leave the balcony open.
At campus #1, after showing a video from TED on the science of happiness (Nancy Etcoff), a student comes up to me after class.
“It’s funny that you showed that video because I’m clinically depressed and that’s why I haven’t been to class.”
I believe this student. She’s not the first brilliant overachieving student I’ve had who has encountered problems due to the overwhelming amount of work and expectations.
“How are you taking care of yourself? How are you coping with your courseload?”
“I’m going to the doctor next week, and I’m spending more time at home with my family.”
I nod my head in agreement. We exchange for a few minutes about ways to manage the rest of the semester. She thanks me for my understanding.
As she left, I reflected on other situations I’ve encountered recently. Earlier in the semester, a student (also brilliant and a singer), was institutionalized again. She came back to class on heavy prescriptions and could not function. She had to drop the course.
In the institute of medicine, the pharmacological/pharmaceutical agenda is pervasive. Sure, the pill is available if you’re feeling down, but how did you get to that point? What is in your life that is unaddressed that causes this cycle to continue? How can your support network help you with building the skills to cope with your stresses? How can you heal?
These are questions I wish were asked more often. Instead, we diagnose and leave it at that, as if these mental illnesses were always present in our lives. It’s developmental. It wasn’t always this way; therefore we can revert to (or progress to) wholeness.
We, as a society, are always planning our next move. We’re afraid to relax, lest we somehow fall off the network and be/have “less” than our cohort. (Western life, it seems, is permanent high school–who’s got what and who’s living better.) I haven’t been immune to the rush of the rat race. Since high school, I’ve plunged onward: undergrad, grad school, career in editing and college teaching.
I thought at the time that pursuing a fine arts degree was somehow more virtuous. After all, poetry is an avocation. It does not have monetary gain as an agenda. I was wrong. Poetry is a business, too, and the carrot dangling in front of me is prestige. Since receiving validation and acclaim in any artistic endeavor is nearly impossible, prestige that I sought needed a substitute: college teaching. It’s fulfilling, sure. As I’ve mentioned on this blog several times, I do find purpose in connecting with students by promoting critical thinking and cultural diversity. I’m in my element about 80% of the time. If academia wasn’t so bent on assessment and funding (and was sustainable), I’d continue to give it all of my energy. But as with anything, there are limitations.
Over the past year, I’d considered numerous life options after the semester ends. Relocation was priority. Where I’ll be going and what I’ll be doing was yet to be determined. I had planned to job search heavily in March and April to see if the universe could help in determining my next step. I considered the east coast. I considered teaching abroad. I also considered going home to the Philippines for some substantial amount of time to clear my head, relax, write, travel. Last summer, when I took a month off to travel around the US by train, I felt 100% in my element. I felt the same when I visited home, Thailand, and Vietnam last year. When I’m stuck in routine mode, I sometimes look at my blog posts and photos from then to recall that freedom. I don’t want to stray too far from it.
In the last month, the winds have pushed me toward home. The intent is to focus on writing. I have a couple of poetry manuscripts to finish, and I’d like to get some nonfiction projects under way. While I don’t plan on being an itinerant forever, I can’t imagine anything better at this time. I’ve informed my deans/department chairs that I won’t be available in the fall. They’ve been supportive and offered to hire me again if I return.
Traveling, which equals freedom, is always the reward. Why can’t it be the process?
At 12, I questioned faith and renounced Catholicism, which I deemed to be imposed on me. I was told by parental figures that I would go to hell. I didn’t care. To me, hell was following something blindly, just because I was told to. For a while, I only believed in science: What cannot be proven does not exist. I’ve since learned that science only knows truth through a limited perspective, that answers merely beget more questions. I’ve studied other belief systems, astrology, metaphysical teachings. Not one system held all of the answers–rather, all of them do.
What’s important is having belief in humanity and our power. I believe in interconnectedness of ourselves and the universe. Our predominant thoughts will manifest. Thoughts turn to action, and we must be the agents of change, as Gandhi stated, that we wish to see in the world.
Though I haven’t yet had time to process all that’s transpired recently, I received some much needed clarity on purpose, power, meaning. A growing consciousness emerges, and I feel more in tune with the universe/myself.
Nothing new but funny, nonetheless.
I’m somewhat ready. Last week, I had to meet with the Writing Director at campus #1 to go over my syllabus for Honors Freshman Composition. This is the class that I had to redesign based on my sub-par evaluations. I spent a few days re-working it–adding a blog component to initiate more discussion, working in some designated “instructor input” sessions, even typing up some formal lesson plans with time marks.
The feedback that I received was that I was heading in the wrong direction. That is, the blog component was propagating the “decentralized” nature of this class, and we want to go the opposite direction (which I thought the “instructor input” sessions would do). It seemed that I was also attempting to cover too many concepts in one session. The Writing Director said that I should try to stick to one or two things (for a 75 min session) that the students can walk away with. (I wish I’d known this earlier.) My concern with this is not having enough content to go over, but I believe it’ll give us the opportunity to thoroughly cover the nuances of these concepts.
Another advice was that I needed to directly tie concepts with practice (their essays). Duh, right? What I had trouble with was the order in which I presented material. Previously, I’d covered a unit on “Academic Writing”–complete with integrating sources, when their next assignment was a personal narrative. (I blame the textbook on this one–academic writing is Ch. 3, while narrative writing is Ch. 4.) Although I’m aware that I can and should deconstruct the book to fit my lessons, I did not particularly think skipping a chapter was a good idea. We’d covered the first two on “Critical Reading” and “The Writing Process”–which is pretty much review–so “Academic Writing” was grouped with that. But I do see the benefit now. This semester, we’ll cover “Academic Writing” with their persuasive essay unit, which does require them to apply the concepts therein.
Lastly, the Writing Director emphasized three things that “professors from other disciplines” want students to learn from composition instructors: 1.) how to formulate a thesis, 2.) how to evaluate text, 3.) how to integrate research. Sounds very simple, and while it’s only about 10% of what I actually do have to cover, this piece of advice will help me focus my lessons.
Learning pedagogy is like learning how to write. Unlike occupations that objectively train you how to do something by following a certain number of prescribed steps, pedagogy and writing urge us to learn through our own process, by trial and error. The Writing Director simply could have given me her tried and true syllabus or sat with mine, pen in hand, to tell me how to structure it, but she didn’t. She asked questions and helped me see my own mistakes. No wonder why she consistently receives great evaluations, per the Associate Dean. I’m appreciative, and I only wish we could have met earlier–like last summer.
Because of having to completely redesign my syllabus (for the second time) for this Honors Comp course, I’m a little behind on my other three syllabi. The semester starts for two classes next week, so the only other one I had to focus on this week was the Comp II at campus #4, which–thank the universe–provided a course plan. I love specificity. And while the course plan can seem rigid to some, it completely lessens the burden of having to pull pedagogy out of my ass within a short period. (I did just get hired a couple of weeks ago.)
The second great thing about this course is that it’s themed: social status and inequality. I’d wanted to redesign the Honors Comp class based on something thematic, but I didn’t have enough time to gather materials. Sometime last semester, I’d looked at the writing programs at the six colleges at UCSD and thought how neat that would be to learn writing concepts based on interesting topics: culture, technology, arts, social justice. At times, it felt as though my composition courses lacked relevance because the content was really repetitive. These students have heard these before. The themes, then, seemed to fill the missing link between “relevance” and “content.”
I have two more syllabi to make from scratch: Comp II (different textbooks) and Technical Writing. But I have until next Monday. Today: much needed play time with my nephews, and then Lauryn Hill, live in concert.
Another university called to ask if I wanted to teach some courses. This is the second semester that the coordinator called way after I’d already filled my schedule. Last summer, after I quit my job and begun my around-the-country train trip, she called while I was around the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. I’m sure she appreciated the live music and screaming children in the background. She asked me to consider her again for the future. It’s somewhat validating to be in demand. It gives me hope that eventually the demand will be for full-time positions. And I’ll take non-tenure track.
Speaking of, for another post, I’m looking at New Orleans for next school year, if a job pulls through. Details later.
Two poems from my first manuscript were accepted for Lavender Review (#3).
Very happy minus a life issue or two.
Like most people, I am perpetually looking for my next move–upward mobility, the sign of success in our culture. The past two years, because I was unhappy with my career at the publisher, I considered various avenues for change: a 1-year post-bacc BSN program, a 2-year Associate’s in Nursing program (since graduates incur less debt and are paid similar wages as BSNs), 1-2 year post-bacc program for medical school, officer training school for the military, film studies programs, and of course, PhD programs in humanities.
All of these choices represent my internal conflicts between needing job security/reasonable wages and my ideals. I wanted, for instance, to go into nursing because of the potential for options: I could work contractually and be a traveling nurse making $60/hr. Or I could pursue medicine on an expert level and be an MD. (Endocrinology and neuroscience interest me the most.) There is also the military who would pay for my loans if I enlist (as a non-officer), or provide job security and a way out of this city. Film school would be a dream with no job security, but an opportunity for creativity. PhD programs in humanities represents my intent to continue along the path I chose for myself during my junior year in college, when I decided that science, with its reductionist motives, were in conflict with my core values. Lately, I’ve been thinking that a PhD in media/cultural studies would be a perfect confluence of my interests and perhaps offer more job security than a PhD in English, although I’m sure the difference is minimal.
Last night, at a cafe in the city (I reside about 40 mins away), I heard young urbanites who attend MA/PhD programs in social work discuss their troubles. They were all under 30, so no doubt they’ve never tried to survive without the construct of academia. One took photos and remarked on the cafe’s ambiance–her outlet from being anxious about the results of her survey/research. They were all brilliant, filled with ideas and doubt. They talked about the system, how they wanted so much to change it, but then got lost along the way. Now they are unsure about the “next step.” They do not want to be social workers. They want to teach and research, except there are very few opportunities–like in English, hundreds of applicants for one position.
Through my experiences in graduate school for my MFA, I’ve come to realize that academia is not sustainable, and here is another case, more evidence. Academia needs brilliant minds, but it cannot offer jobs because there are none, unless more universities pop up. According to The Chronicle, roughly half of all doctoral graduates get jobs in their field. Slightly less than a Ponzi scheme, but pretty close.
Recently, I read through some emails between my AP Lit teacher (who has since passed from a brain tumor) and me. I had just switched majors from Biology to English, and I was so excited about this new path into the humanities. I knew then, in 2003, that teaching and writing would be my goals:
O the possibilities!! I’m excited but terribly afraid…At least I know life will not be mundane, huh?
Seven years later, I’ve achieved those goals: teaching and and writing, but I have a long way to go. Doubt gets to me, especially when I see those from my high school cohort, who’ve pursue medicine or some other practical route, do very well and present themselves with much more glee and confident purpose. Most have families now and are accomplishing those “emerging adulthood” milestones, while I’ve regressed a bit. (I did have a mortgage once and a series of partners, although none of it worked out.) I have difficulty at times in feeling secure about my life decisions–not just pursuing a career in the humanities, but life in general.
My 10-year high school reunion is coming up this summer. I was co-valedictorian and had very high expectations for myself. (The other valedictorian is now in her residency as a family physician.) Perhaps, I feel some measure of failure. I did take the path less traveled, but what do I have to show for it besides an overdeveloped consciousness and three towering bookshelves filled with ideas? I’ve acquired very little in the same terms that “accomplishment” is usually measured in the world (ie, wealth, prestige, security).
Regardless, I do feel good about my life’s progress. I’m somewhat accomplished. I’m self-aware. I’ve assessed what happiness means to me: freedom, love, meaning. I have lived without the security of the box. I have enjoyed life as opposed to be burdened by it.
My AP Lit teacher also wrote on my senior book: “Make waves and conquer.” The message was to not subsume the ways of the system but to be one step ahead.
Indeed. I’m trying.
I wish I had the money and wont carelessness to have planned a nice vacation over winter break. But, alas, I have two goals that are more important to achieve this year: have zero credit card debt (done) and amass half a year’s worth of living expenses for NYC before May (not even close).
So during my staycation thus far, I’ve done a semester’s worth of sleeping, which quickly changed from midnight to 6 am (during the semester) to 3 am to noon. I’ve also caught up on seasons of Lie to Me on Netflix and Fringe on Hulu.
I have written only two poems. (I did, though, submit my work to several journals that take electronic submissions. Ink, paper, and stamps are too costly.) My body does not know what to do with itself. It’s not used to “rest.” Last year, I toured southeast Asia for three weeks and the entire country for a month. My staycation just feels like a bust. I haven’t even maintained my exercise regimen (running, pilates). (In my defense, the holidays shut down my free gym at the cc, and it’s been a blustery below-freezing week.)
I’m getting antsy, yet I cannot seem to get myself out of pajamas and do something productive. I’ve put in zero hours on my course prep for next semester. I have four preps. As alluded to in my previous post, I did, in fact get the fifth class at campus #4 (Comp II). I’ll be whoring myself at four campuses next semester instead of two. I have a shit ton of work to do.
Today, I attempted to wake up before noon and get started on prep work, but I ended up reading poetry and getting trapped in the cyberlinks to chapbook publishing. I also spent a couple of hours on Facebook and subsequent external links. I did check off one to-do item: signing up for Interfolio, a dossier service and emailing references.
Around midnight or so, my brain decided to focus on tasks: adding published articles to my CV, which led me to updating my Goodreads bookshelves (because of a book review I wrote) for another couple of hours. Tomorrow, I need to re-instate my LinkedIn account. I guess getting my cyberworld in order is productive?