I’m not really a writer these days. I’ve been doing a lot of living, loving, being and thinking. But my writing seems to be stuck somewhere between past triumph and future inspiration. I have many topics waiting, crowding the shelves of my mental office, clamouring for a little more thought, a little wisp of time and the painful practice of translating idea to page. Oh, yes. I have much to say, but this season of cold winter has me stopped in the snow, looking out at a glittering world and, like a small child, simply saying, “Oh!”
That seems to be the extent of my writing output these days, but in putting together a writing resume for a possible dream job, I have had the chance to look back over my previous writing days, and especially, my university days.
I’ve had many people tell me, subtly or otherwise, that an English Honours degree has done nothing for me, save add a little vanity and whole raft of vocabulary. True enough. But standing back now and looking at my husband go through the tortures of graduate school, I feel as though I have a counterpoint to every standard joke about arts degrees and resulting careers in coffee shops.
I wasn’t an overachiever. I didn’t write extra-credit essays, publish articles and speak at academic conferences, start national feminist magazines, join the student council, take the maximum number of classes and chair committees on interdisciplinary topics. I spent a lot of my first year back at school (after a two-year stint as a cowgirl cook) in bewilderment, while voices around me hummed indiscriminately and the names of literary theorists I’d never heard of were brandished like fine-tipped rapiers. I spent a lot of time wondering why I was even there, and how in the world I was going to read and digest 200 pages of literature a week, let alone have something to say about it.
And I tried, in my insecurity, to find a place for myself among the talkers, a place among the A-students, a cynical place of disdain for ill-prepared professors or fellow students with too many words and not nearly enough content. I was good at all that for awhile, until a poetry professor pierced my act with a revolutionary class, and taught me the meaning of reflection, and the value of wonder.
His class on sports and literature attracted an eclectic group – from jocks looking for an easy grade to high-minded honours types like myself, looking also, for an easy grade. I spent the first few weeks rolling my eyes and raising my hand to point out the finer distinctions of poetic discourse, boiling over with knowledge and labelling that I’d used like intellectual currency since high-school. You know, onomatopoeia and all the rest. And this wise, wise teacher simply ignored my indignant hand. He drove me crazy, asking the slowest students, the most distracted ones, the latecomers and the science nerds. And they stumbled and laughed, made remarks about the most obvious things, offered, in my opinion, nothing revolutionary.
But while I scoffed, a revolution was happening to me and the way I experienced learning. I was being taught a lesson that I think our schools have laid aside in the quest for certification and distinction, training students to be simply more attractive hiring options in a commercialized world.
I was learning about poetry, and about myself. About the need to pause, and reflect. The opposite of performance is not, as the thesaurus and the mechanized, competitive world would say, failure. The opposite of performance is reflection. As I sat in class after poetry class, pausing myself and my self-righteous indignation, I watched my professor draw out and search tenderly for new shoots of understanding and the beginnings of poetic imaginations in students who would never consider themselves able to even read poetry, let alone understand it. I saw poems come alive through the responses of others in ways I would have never allowed them to, because I was so busy fitting them into the right categories, with the correct grammatical labels. I had the time to reflect on what was being said, and mull it over, let it settle and unfold, instead of rushing in at every opportunity in order to hear myself sound smart and say the right thing.
My degree has almost nothing to do with the job I do now to pay the rent, and I rarely get the chance to talk poetry or any other subject in quite the same thrilling atmosphere as university, but I’m okay with that. The parts of my education that are the most precious to me are unquantifiable, uncountable.
And so, with precisely a month to traverse before I turn 29, on the threshold of an age where, supposedly, one has finally found oneself, or at least a steady job and a mortgage, and a signature catchphrase, I am pausing to reflect and wonder.
For there are a great many wonderful things about where I’ve come from, and where I might be headed. It’s been a year of healing and growth, forgetting and remembering.
By being a little under the radar these days, at work and in life, I have the emotional space and time to pause and reflect. Instead of being pushed to perform, I’m sitting in the back of the class once again, taking notes, and happily, not saying very much at all.