Mamaw

My Mamaw died this morning. Peacefully, it seems, and many years later than we expected. She had been in assisted living and then at a nursing home for I forget how many years now, living with dementia. I was never close to her, and my memories of her are split between pleasant and unpleasant. If I had known this word as a child, I would have described her as brusque. When I saw her last in May, she didn’t know who I was or who my mom was, but we expected that.

My Mamaw died this morning and I don’t know how I feel about it. Or how I should feel. The truth is that my life will go on exactly the same as it has the past many years. Nothing has changed. Except that the whole world has shifted a little, or tilted. Like it did last summer when my uncle Max, Mamaw’s oldest son, died. No one told her; she would not have known who he was. In less than a year, the fabric of my life has contracted twice. My family has quietly shrunk.

And I’m in Georgia, a thousand miles away, unsure of how to feel or whether I can afford the time to go home for the funeral, or whether I can afford not to go. I didn’t make it home for Uncle Max this summer, and I have wished often that I could have made a different choice. Either way, life will not wait patiently on pause while I work out how I feel, and what I should feel, and deal with maybe a little guilt over not being able to say with any certainty that I am sad. I still have to grade papers. I still have to prep to teach my class. I still have to read for exams. I still have to show up.

And I don’t know what to say, either. I tried to write a Facebook post, but it seemed weird and wrong somehow to say, “My Mamaw died and I don’t know how to feel.” It seemed impossible to reduce into a status update her moment of passing and my emotional stasis. So I came here instead, I suppose hoping that more words would make things more clear, or easier, or comprehensible, or something. I’m not sure it has.

There are two memories of my Mamaw that I have cherished for years.

The first was after I got my first horse, Tigger. Mom sent Mamaw a photo in the mail, and the next time we came to visit, Tigger’s photo was up on Mamaw’s refrigerator. It wasn’t much, but at that time, nothing in the world was more important to me that that horse, and it meant a lot to me that Mamaw cared about him too. I felt like she was proud of me.

The second happened sometime when I was in college. We were in Midland visiting, and Mamaw was asking me about college. She sat in her floral-upholstered easy chair, the one that had been in the same place in her living room as far back as I could remember, which sat even then next to the empty, gray chair that had been my Grandad’s. She listened to me talk about school. And then she announced that she had gotten a full scholarship to college when she graduated high school, but she didn’t go. “That’s when I met your grandad,” she said. And then, with a faraway look in her eyes and a slight, secretive smile playing at her lips, she quietly declared, “He was my Waterloo.” It was the only time I remember hearing her speak of her youth (she wasn’t much for story-telling), and it was the only glimpse I ever had into her life beyond what I knew of it through my own experience. It felt like a gift. It still does.

And one more memory, from my visit with her in May. My mom and I were talking to her, trying to explain who we were, and my mom said that I had come all the way from Georgia to Texas to see her. She looked at us and said, “I wish I was in Texas.” Mom said, “You are. This nursing home is in Texas,” to which Mamaw simply said, “No.” We let it go and laughed about it later. I’m thinking about that now, as I’m also wishing that I were in Texas and not so very far away from my family.

 

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So, about 2014.

So I haven’t blogged in a long time. I’m not sorry. I couldn’t find my way to words that would hold up to how things were going. I couldn’t find the time to try to write. A few times, I thought I had something to say, but then I could never really muster the emotional energy to say them.

But here I am now in the quiet and reflective space between semesters, between years, and I guess it’s time for my grudging annual attempt to sort through the past year and think about the next one. Usually, the effect has been that I remember the past year more fondly, but I don’t think that will be the case this time. I think, though, that the effort will be worthwhile.

To say that this has been a hard year is to be excruciatingly reserved. It feels more accurate to say that it’s been my worst year–ever–although in truth all of my years in Atlanta have been so difficult that it’s hard to pick one out from the tangle and say that it’s worse than the others. You see, this is why I haven’t blogged. Just living this year has been hard enough; trying to transmute my experiences into language and derive some meaning from them was too much.

Melodramatic enough? Well, here’s what this year looked like for me.

2014 was the year that started out numb. Going through the motions. Wondering if I would ever feel passionate about anything again. Wondering if I would ever feel content or happy again, instead of just blank. At the time, I attributed it primarily to burn out (which I wrote about in my last post), which was probably part of it, but I think it was more likely a hold-over from the previous, difficult year and a half. At any rate, I sort of snapped out of that in time for a short breather before the next thing.

Because 2014 was the year that I learned about living with someone dealing with depression. Around the end of April, just as the semester was ending, the bottom fell out for my brave, amazing roommate, Grace. Grace, who made my life so much better when she moved to Atlanta and who has become one of my best friends. Grace has dealt with depression in the past, and although she can recognize now that this particular episode was a slow burn coming on for a while, it blindsided us both at the time. Grace got the meds she needed, and began slowly to recover and heal, but for both of us depression colored the rest of the year in bleak tones.

2014 was also the year of the sleepless summer. Not really sleepless–I did sleep some. But almost every night I had trouble going to sleep and/or woke up around 2:30 and had trouble going back to sleep. Nothing I did seemed to help, even prescription sleep aids. It took me all summer to work out a ritual routine that usually allowed me to go to sleep and stay asleep. Mostly this was due to compounding stress–see the previous paragraph, and add to it trying to read for comprehensive exams and worrying over repairs needed for the house. But then the insomnia added to the stress, and slowed down my ability to read which also increased the stress, so I ended up in a feedback loop of stress that I couldn’t find my way out of.

2014 was also the year my Uncle Max succumbed to cancer, and I couldn’t deal with the stress of unexpected travel and didn’t make it back to Texas for the funeral.

2014 was the year Grace and I road-tripped to Boston, where I promptly developed debilitating nausea on our first day there. To add insult to injury, I was halfway through my glorious and favorite banana-stuffed French toast at Zaftig’s when it started. I couldn’t even finish the dish I had waited a year to enjoy. Worse than that, I couldn’t enjoy my trip, although I had ample opportunity to be so grateful to the Gibsons and Lollars, who graciously hosted us and were so kind. Our last day there, I was well enough to get out and even managed to eat a cannoli. I’m glad we went. I’m glad I got to see a few friends and spend some time in the city I love so dearly. But what I desperately wanted was a time of renewal and refreshment, and instead I got nausea.

Which turned out to be chronic. 2014 was the year in which I spent about three months nauseated most of the time. What happened in Boston was the start of a pattern–4 or 5 days of nausea followed by a day or two of feeling okay, rinse and repeat. Or maybe 2 or 3 days on and one off. It wasn’t really a pattern, exactly, but those okay days would make me think that maybe I didn’t need to see a doctor. It took me about a month to decide that I did, in fact, need to make an appointment. The doc and I both thought that my problem was related to reflux, so I tried a course of Prilosec and a restricted diet. It helped some, but not enough, so the doc referred me to a gastroenterologist who showed mercy and prescribed both a reflux medicine and anti-nausea pills and continuing the restricted diet. He also scheduled an endoscopy, which revealed that I have gastritis, inflamation of the stomach lining–not so bad, really. It should clear up eventually. So 2014 is the year of gastritis.

And so it was also the year of dietary restrictions that make eating hard, especially when traveling, and a lack of appetite that makes eating a chore rather than something I enjoy.

2014 was also the year of counseling. The first doc I saw about my stomach suggested that stress could be a factor and I should look into counseling. And since I knew with certainty that stress was a major factor for me, and had been since I moved to Atlanta, I decided to follow up on that. And counseling was hard, but really helpful. I wish I had gone sooner.

So, yeah. Reflecting on the last year is kind of rough. My counselor helped me to acknowledge how hard the year had been, how hard it was to feel sick, how stressful it was for that sickness to impede my progress toward my exams. Also, how bad I am at sharing with others when I’m having a hard time. But honestly, I don’t have a lot of practice at it. I can recognize as I look at this list just how very blessed I am to say that this might be my worst year ever. This. What a charmed life I’ve had that this list is what makes a year the worst. It doesn’t really take the sting out of the year to say that, but it feels important to remember it.

And this year wasn’t all bad. 2014 was also the year that I stopped feeling lonely all the time in Atlanta, thanks to Grace. I have been consistently glad she was here, even with depression. My life is so much richer with her in it, and I’m grateful for her presence and her friendship.

It was the year I found the perfect barn for me to ride at, with the perfect riding instructor for me. 2014 is the year I started learning to jump with horses. The year that I remembered how it felt when I was kid and riding was new and precious and a sanctuary. This year, riding was a much needed sanctuary again, and most of my happy moments from the year were spent at the barn, in the saddle, getting to know fellow horse-lovers and some special horses.

And 2014 was also the year when Grace and I started rock climbing. We’re pretty lucky to live about 10 minutes from the biggest indoor rock gym in the US, and we’ve loved climbing. We haven’t tackled the big walls yet–it just seems like so much is involved in getting certified to belay and putting on harnesses and all that. Plus, one of us (me) has a fear of heights that makes the big walls look less appealing. Bouldering is our game. We climb the short walls (15 feet? 16? something like that) surrounded by crash mats. We do a lot of routes in a session, relax on the cushy mats between climbs, chat with other amiable climbers, sing along to classic rock favorites playing over the gym speakers. We have a good time. And it’s an exercise that feels good, mind and body. I love how strong my hands and arms are getting, and how finishing a particularly hard route makes me feel like I can do anything.

And maybe most importantly, 2014 was the year that I had opportunities to appreciate the support of communities. Lots of times, I send out distress messages to my closest group of friends from college asking for prayers and was so grateful for their generous responses, and when they shared their struggles as well. Lots of times I sent ridiculous, long, sometimes angsty emails to Hilary, who always received them and responded graciously (but we saw each other through the difficulties of elementary and middle school, so we’ve been in the angst trenches together for a long time). And my goodness, my parents, who took half of their vacation to come and help me fix things in the house and who told me over and over that they love me and they’re proud of me. Also this was the year when Grace and I really started to settle in and develop a sense of community in our incredible church family. And my year ended surrounded by some of my best friends and also some new friends in a wonderful, peaceful New Year’s celebration that almost made 2014 seem not so bad.

There have been some great moments this year. But for the first time I can remember, the good moments don’t tip the scale. I have this list of good things, this four-point list that I’ve been reciting to myself for weeks now to try and shift my feelings about the year. I’m deeply, profoundly grateful for the good moments and even more grateful for the good people in my life this year. But it doesn’t tip the scale. Last year I was hopeful that 2014 was going to be better. I felt like things were going to get easier, and I was wrong about that. This year I’m not sure what’s in store. I’m more hopeful now than I was a couple of weeks ago, but it’s a tentative and fragile hope. What I am sure of is that whatever comes, I’ll get through it. I read an article recently that argued that life is less like a heroic tale than it is like a comedy–not because life is always funny, but rather because comedies feature characters who just sort of muddle through and manage to survive their circumstances by luck or accident. That’s what I have in mind for 2015–no grand plans or lofty expectations. But I’ll muddle through. Maybe it will even be funny sometimes.

rise and 100 happy days

So, hey y’all. What’s going on? I guess it’s been a while since my last post, but let’s face it—it’s been a fair stretch since I posted regularly anyway. I think about posting regularly; does that count? No? Oh, well.

My last post was about my word for this year: rise. I said that I was looking forward to a better year. That I wanted this IMG_4733year to ascend, to come up from last year. I had plans and goals—specific ways to make that ascent happen.

And then you know what happened? Burn out set in. Like an anchor. Because when you count them up, this is my 6th year and my 12th semester of graduate-level course work. Yeah, you read that right. There were two years between my master’s degrees, but that still means that I’ve been taking grad-level classes for 6 of the last 8 years. That’s a lot. That’s more years that most people take to get a bachelor’s degree. So this burn out, it’s like the crazy, 30-year-old [academic] masochist’s version of  senioritis. My saving grace has been that I’m only taking one class, and it’s on two of my favorite poets, Yeats and Heaney. So it’s not as hard to get the work done, and I’ve done most of the reading before at some point or another. But still. I reached new levels of apathy in the first half of this semester.

And then in the midst of that, I discovered a leak in my roof, which had made a lovely water mark on my ceiling. And courtesy of two freak snow storms, I had to keep rescheduling the roofers to come take a look and let me know what the problem was (and how much it was going to cost to fix it, and if my whole roof was going to need to be replaced). And then water started backing up from the sink into the dishwasher. And then Spur got injured (just a little) and I wasn’t sure what was wrong with her. Come on, Atlanta. What’s a gal got to do to catch a break? All of this weighed me down.

All of that culminated in a [very minor] panic attack that was both weirdly uncharacteristic and had the happy effect of sort of rebooting my emotional system. After it, I felt a little less burned out and apathetic. I started to feel more like myself. And then the weather finally started shifting toward spring, and flowers started blooming. I was finally able to meet with the roofer, and it turned out that my leak was pretty minor and it didn’t take too much to get it fixed. Spring Break happened, and I was able to get some yard work done, and some organization in the house. I went through closets and took a load of stuff to Goodwill (including some things that I’ve been planning to take since right after I moved here). And, crucially, the week before Spring Break, Grace had the brilliant idea to do a fast from tv–to which we had become terribly attached. It was massively liberating, and we’ve decided to limit [pretty strictly] how much we watch (but I’ll tell you more about that another time). And, the best part: I found a place to take riding lessons, so horses are going to be a regular part of my life again, and it’s been far, far too long since that was true.

These things all came together to make me feel better, lighter, happier. In fact, I have been happier in the past two weeks than I have at anytime since I’ve lived in Atlanta. Happier by a lot. And that means that I feel more like myself than I have at any point since I’ve been here. What a relief! It feels really good to be able to say that.

So in spite of a flat start to the year, 2014 is taking off after all. I’m on the rise, finally. And earlier this week, I learned about a little challenge floating around the interwebs called 100 Happy Days. It seems to me to be a perfect fit with my word this year. The challenge is to post a photo to social-media-of-choice of something that makes you happy every day for 100 days, using the hashtag #100HappyDays to identify the photos. The idea is for participants to feel happier by spending time deliberately thinking about what makes them happy (you can read more about it here). It reminds me a little of the daily gratitude blog posts I’ve done in the past—a challenge and a discipline to lift my mood by spending time every day thinking about what I’m grateful for. It’s been effective in the past but last year I learned that gratitude can be very hard, especially when I’m trying to find enough words to merit a blog post. This 100 Happy Days challenge has a similar premise, but I like the idea of posting photos instead of writing blog posts, and focusing on finding something that makes me smile seems simpler than the weightier prospect of gratitude. So I decided to dive into the challenge on Wednesday, March 19th. I’m four days in and I’m enjoying it a lot!

I’m sharing my photos on Instagram (and Facebook), but I know that some of you don’t play the social media game (ahem, Dad and Mark). So I’m going to put my photos here too with a little more editorial (or not, depending on what I want to do). I’ll do it on a weekly basis, so hey—more regular posts! Let’s start with this week.

photo 1-2On Wednesday evening, Grace and I went to Candice and Felix’s house for dinner. Candice is from South Africa and Felix is from Germany but lived in South Africa for awhile, and they both love the South African tradition of braai (which is kind of like a barbecue). Felix’s mom and a friend are visiting from Germany, and they wanted to have a braai for them and invited us along too. I don’t enough about cars to say things about the precision of German automotive engineering, but I have lots of positive thoughts about the precision of German grilling. Delicious! We always have a good time with Candice and Felix.

photo 2-2On Thursday afternoon, I went horseback riding! I had a lesson at this barn. And I loved it. I liked the barn—which is only about 30 minutes from my house. As I was driving out there, I remembered that it took about the same amount of time to get to Betty’s place in Buffalo Gap when I was learning to ride as a kid. I really liked the trainer, who was both knowledgeable and personable, and who wasn’t dismissive of the fact that almost all of my experience and knowledge is Western riding. Since I want to take Dressage lessons—and Dressage folks can sometimes be very pretentious—I wasn’t sure how it would go. But she thought it was great, and when I told her that I used to show reining horses some, she said, “Oh, so you already know a lot about Dressage.” I think that’s when I knew for sure that this was my kind of place. The lesson went really well, and I’m looking forward to going back and getting back into regular riding. I’ve needed this for a while now.

photo 3-1Yesterday, we (I and my fellow TAs) got an email with course evaluations from last semester. The prof had asked the students to include a sentence or two about us on the evals. Usually, I don’t really like evaluations. Students can be mean and vindictive in their comments, and a few years back I had one evaluation that was not only harsh, but full of untrue things (that I texted during class and dressed unprofessionally, for example). That one left a bad taste in my mouth for reading evals. But y’all, not to brag or anything, but I nailed it last semester in my discussion section. It was a great semester, and so I wasn’t dreading this set. And I had great evals from my students, which of course made me happy and warm fuzzies and all that. But this one made me laugh out loud. You know how books and movies will use quotes from reviews in advertising? Maybe I should include this quote as a line on my syllabus next semester in that same capacity.

photo 4-1And today. In December (or January? Maybe November? Who really knows?), I created some much-needed space in the hall closet by pulling out all of the many paint cans that the previous owner’s contractor had left. I set them out by the back door, thinking that I would immediately find out where to take paint cans, some of which were half full (none of it was any good), to recycle them. But I didn’t. Because it would be wildly uncharacteristic of me to actually take care of something like that quickly. But one of my goals for Spring Break was to get rid of them because I’ve realized lately how much clutter really bothers me. And in my search for where to recycle, I found that our county was hosting a household hazardous waste recycling event today. So we loaded up the paint cans and a few burned out florescent tubes and got rid of the mess and reclaimed some space on the patio. It feels so much better already to not have that junk sitting out there.

Next, I gloved-up and went to work on the kudzu in the backyard. In the bottom left photo, you can see how bad it was when I moved in. Last year around this time, I started pulling it down off the trees (because this stuff kills trees), and then I gradually started working on getting it off the ground. It was slow going over the summer, though, because of the rain, and it was hard work. But I got some work done on it over the break, and then I got a thatch rake which really helped today when I went after it. I’m really pleased with how much progress I’ve made, and I think that a couple more days of hard work will have it cleared out of this part of the back yard. I’m looking forward to being able to plant some flowers and other plants back there, and it’s really made me feel encouraged about putting effort into the landscape at my house. Suddenly, the task seems more doable than it used to. And, it always feels so good to get out in the sunshine and do a little hard work.

So, there you are. More of an updated that you wanted, I’m sure, and certainly a longer update than I intended to write. But that’s okay, because writing this made me happy, too.

rise.

My word last year was enough. I didn’t write about it much after the first couple of weeks, but I chose that word because I wanted to focus throughout the year on remember that I am enough and that what I have and my life here in Atlanta are enough, and to try and locate and remedy deficiencies in my life the made it feel not enough. Not really a resolution, per se–more of an attitude adjustment. As I’ve said, though, the first part of 2013 was less than stellar. Where I had hoped that focusing on enough would produce a zen-like serenity, a willful contentment, I found the absolute opposite happening. However hard I tried, I couldn’t reach equilibrium and I felt unbalanced and unhappy most of the time during those months. Enough became less about contentment and more about holding on. Enough meant that I was going to school and doing my reading and producing okay papers with good ideas. It meant that I was going to church and praying and reading the Bible (however half-heartedly). It meant that I was playing with Spur and taking her for a run in the mornings and keeping us both fed. Enough, in practice, didn’t mean being happy and settled; it meant doing the hard work of living in the midst of turmoil and not being upended.

In my last post, I said that 2013 wasn’t a banner year for me, but I worked hard enough and did enough to be okay. And I was okay. And if my one little word didn’t lead me where I thought it would, it did teach me something important: sometimes we forget that life can be really hard and that most of us are just doing the best we can to ride it out for a while, hoping for a smoother road ahead. Sometimes we look at other people and wonder, with an edge to our thoughts, why they can’t just get it together already. In some cases, that’s fair. But other times, it may take everything that person’s got just to make it through the day–and sometimes that has to be enough. So, in other words, I learned a little bit about grace this year.

But I’m not just holding on anymore, and I’m not just okay. I made it through that rough patch and things are looking so much brighter. I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions, really, but I’ve been telling people that what I’ve resolved for this year is to have more good times than bad. I don’t know if 2014 will be a banner year or not, but I’m planning on it being a better year. In the words of my friend Kristi, “2014: The Year Atlanta Doesn’t Suck.” This year, things are looking up.

And that’s why my one little word for 2014 is rise. I’m done being downcast, and I’m done with lowered expectations for myself. I’m on my way back up. And I’m looking forward to finding out just what that means.

IMG_4670

hope smiles

hope smiles

Y’all, let’s be serious. I did not love 2013. The first half of the year was really hard. You may have noticed that there wasn’t a lot of blogging, and that was largely because there was a lot of feeling sad and lonely and overwhelmed. Even though things are a lot better for me now, I still feel a little bit bruised from those days. No, I won’t be remembering 2013 as a banner year, at least not for now.

But as I reflect on the past year (as I seem increasingly prone to do around New Year), I remember that in spite of how very hard it was, 2013 had some truly, spectacularly wonderful moments. I had dinner with Salman Rushdie. I met Seamus Heaney and got to hear him read. I was fairly certain that getting meeting my favorite poet was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and since Heaney passed away this fall, I was right.

My parents visited me at spring break and I got to explore some of Atlanta with them (finally). Aside from just having them around, highlights from their visit were the aquarium (WHALE SHARKS) and the Botanical Garden (probably my favorite place I’ve been to in Atlanta). Mom and Gail (her best friend and my second mom) came for a short visit at the end of April, leaving me with a clean house, enough food in my fridge for a couple of weeks, and lots of love.

I took a few classes that I loved, most notably a class on Foucault this fall. It was an incredibly intellectually productive course of study for me, and I’m telling you now that if you haven’t spent a 15+ hour drive intermittently considering the real-life implications of biopower on ALL OF THE THINGS, you haven’t lived. Or, more likely, you’re just a lot less nerdy than I am. I keep waiting for side-effects of intensive Foucault study to wear off, but they haven’t yet. On the bright side, I’ve gone at least a few weeks now without interjecting, “You know, Foucault says _______” into at least one conversation each day. I mean, I’ve thought it a few times, but I haven’t said it out loud and that’s real improvement.

I also got a job in our library’s incredible special collections this year, and I’ve really loved it. I have enjoyed the people I work with and what I do there and I’ve really enjoyed getting familiar with the materials in our collections. I’ve also enjoyed my paychecks (no joke, y’all). But what I’ve loved most, I think, is having something non-studenty to do that’s still related to my profession and my academic intersts. It’s been good for me.

In the summer I got to go back to Boston for a short trip (too short, really). I had always photo-33planned on going back for a visit, but my friend Kate’s wedding provided the occasion. And what a wedding! It was beautiful and intimate, with a really wonderful wedding sermon and the best reception food I’ve ever had! I even danced with the bride, and yes, this is photographic evidence that I’m a totally awkward dancer (and that I was having loads of fun). This trip also featured a sunset harbor cruise (Kate’s bachelorette party), a lot of walking around Boston and food at my favorite restaurants, a perfect evening in the North End with the Lollars and the Gibsons, and church at Brookline. And Katie and Jeremiah were such gracious hosts that they picked me up from the airport twice–once when I arrived five hours later than scheduled (thanks Delta), and again when I the check-in time for my flight by 5 measly minutes and had to stay an extra night. But that wasn’t so bad, because we played a rousing game of Trivial Pursuit, which I almost won.

Definitely the most fun I had in 2013 was going to DragonCon with Grace. We had a blast going to panels, seeing people from some of our favorite sci-fi/fantasy tv show stars, going to academic panels, and–most of all–watching all of the cosplayers. You wouldn’t believe some of the awesome costumes we saw. It was like these people had walked off a movie set. We loved how uninhibited they were. Age and body type didn’t stop people from having a great time as whatever character they liked. And everybody was have a great time. Now, you probably think of The Big Bang Theory when you imagine who goes to a Con like this. And yeah, there are folks like that. But you know who else is there? Your grandparents, your accountant, your yoga instructor, your high school math teacher, your college English professor (ahem), your 12-year-old niece. All kinds of people go to DragonCon. I’m glad that this year, I was one of them.

But the best thing that happened this year was Grace coming to Atlanta. We’ve had such a good time together and it’s been such a blessing to have her here. Gone are the days of feeling lonely and sad. Now have come the days of sword fights with rakes in the backyard, discussions about Foucault and composition theory and God, tandem geek-outs over all the same things we like. Even watching tv is more fun with Grace–partially because she makes great sounds of surprise when something shocking happens. Having her here as made a huge difference in my life in Atlanta.

There was a lot of good in 2013, even if the hard times have tended to cast a long shadow on the year for me. And I’m planning on 2014 being better–more smiles, more laughter, more fun. Here’s to 2014. May you be blessed in the new year.

 

Oh, Foucault!

Today I’m reading an interview with Michel Foucault from Le Monde in 1980, and I felt like this paragraph needs to be shared. It’s lovely, and it describes what I aspire to do as a critic.

I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgements but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes–all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.

(from “The Masked Philosopher,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth)

Out of the marvelous as he had known it

Maybe you’ve heard by now that Seamus Heaney died today. Maybe you know his poetry yourself, or maybe you’ve only heard of him because I’ve been posting lines and whole poems from him for years here on the blog. Last March, Heaney came to Emory for a reading and I was lucky enough to meet him and snap a quick photo with him in addition to hearing him read. When I posted the pic on Facebook, several of my friends asked who he was. So I explained, in brief, that he was a Noble Prize-winning Northern Irish poet, and that he was my favorite.

But that’s not all he was. Google his name today and you’ll find moving tributes from his friends and admirers. This one from The Irish Times is especially good, I think. He was important, and his poetry is important, on a broad, international scale. And his poetry is important, too, for individuals like my friend Susan, Heaney is the person who taught her to love Beowulf.

For me, Heaney is the person who taught me love poetry. I had always liked poetry, even though I often found it a bit bewildering–which made me shy away from writing about it usually. And when I settled on Irish literature as my general research field for my master’s thesis, I initially thought I would write on Joyce and/or Yeats, or some other Revivalist (that’s early 20th century, before the 1920s). But Heaney waylaid those plans. The more I read of his work, the more I wanted to read. In the end, there wasn’t really a moment when I decided to write my thesis about his work. His poetry decided for me, and I did my best to follow where it led.

Some of you will know that writing that thesis was formative for me in some important ways–namely, it’s what made me believe in my own writing and ideas, what made me believe that I could and maybe should go on to get my PhD. In large part, that’s due to my amazing thesis director, but it’s also because of Heaney’s poetry. I like to think of literary scholarship as a conversation with a text. I ask my questions in hushed tones and the text whispers back, telling me its secrets and asking me questions in return. And as I read and read and read Heaney’s poems and sounded my voice off of the page margins, they opened up for me in ways that no other poetry had. That gave me confidence in myself as a scholar.

And more than that, his poetry taught me to see the world differently. Because for Heaney, who wrote many poems in response to the conflict in Northern Ireland, political unrest is never separate from the human beings involved. It’s not political groups or parties or factions that he writes about, the nameless, faceless They. It’s individuals with faces and forms and bodies. He humanizes the conflict, and that changed how I understood it, and other, similar violent conflicts.

So when people ask me why I love Heaney’s poetry, I usually say that it’s beautiful and meaningful and important. But that’s only the short answer.