When To Take The Drawing Away

I've been writing a lot this last couple weeks but publishing very little on the blog (or anywhere else) because I'm torn between two competing instincts: to publish and to revise. It's difficult to know when something is ready to go, when it's finished. I have a piece about the power of leaving the classroom, the nature of real leadership, and the mistake of hierarchy, but I don't know that I've got all three things in the piece, that they all belong and are connected in some meaningful way. I liked the first draft but saw issues and have gone through four or five revisions, but wonder if it still requires significant restructuring and re-imagining. I wish it would just resolve into what I imagine it should be, but there is still work to be done.

On the other side are today's Morning Pages. Running my pen over three pages, I came up with something that felt good in the moment, but I worry it will require just as much revision as the leadership piece. There are only so many balls I can keep in the air. Here's what the Morning Pages sound like:

The most vivid of dreaming this morning began with a woman who could not wait to get me alone and naked. She was dream-familiar in that she probably combines eight to ten women I've known or seen on the screen. I'm trying to conjure her now in order to figure out who she is, but she is a figment, fleeting, insubstantial as smoke. Maybe I have no idea who she is and with every attempt to pin her to reality some part of me says, "she's not of this world. Let her go."

In a later dream I was saying goodbye to Danny Devito whose son I had helped somehow. I said, "I hope to come back someday." He stared sadly at me, not wanting to explain that this was a one-off. The woman appeared again, silent, withdrawn, and I was possessed of a need to make out of desire something like love because the chance wouldn't come again. But I also knew that chance had never come at all. I hugged her — around the legs of all things. She allowed it because even I knew it was an embrace rather than my usual desperate hanging on.

In the real world, something like my old school job was posted yesterday. This morning the school's website is down. Coincidence? I don't think so! (Actually, I'm sure it's coincidence but still enjoy that joke.) The posting describes only half of what I used to do. This is either management omitting crucial details and withholding information or it indicates a programming shift in which the two parts of my old job are split from one another. I suspect it's the former or else there would be a part-time job posted as well.

Whatever the case, some poor sap will walk into my old job like stepping on a rake, the wooden handle snapping up hard in her or his face. They'll see stars and it will leave a mark. Some admin will say "it's nothing, keep walking, there are a hundred more rakes in the yard. Good luck!" They'll give the sap a push forward, turn out the lights, and blamed that teacher for every bruise and beating they receive.

Here's what really bothers me about all this: I won't know; I'll be out of that loop. No one in management will notice I'm gone and those on the ground will be too busy to pine for me. Though I want to say it doesn't matter, I'm so troubled about being easily replaced that I want to see the place fall to pieces without me.

"Why are you still carrying her?" the elder monk asks me. I have no good answer. Anger, anxiety, and ego get in the way of enlightenment. I'm still back in the place I left in June, trying to change someone other than myself.

(There's a topic to discuss with my therapist today. Will I continue therapy after August when I have to change insurance plans? It will be a luxury I likely can't afford and I wonder if it's a better vehicle than this writing. Is it just a shield against making the same old mistakes?)

In the dream I was only close to the woman twice and each time something got in the way. First it was other people, then it was me. When Danny Devito asked how he should pay me for helping his son, I said, "call it tutoring. That's what I do." He shrugged and wrote the check.

Then I was with a guy trying to figure out our next move in a long-term plan to teach writing. I asked what our next event should be, but he refused to say even the first word.

That was this morning's pages. There are things that interest me, but it's a mess, just a draft. I'm torn between revising and losing the feel of the thing. It reminds me of a scene in Six Degrees Of Separation:

FLAN (VO): How easy it is for a painter to lose a painting. He can paint and paint – work on canvas for months and one day he loses it – just loses the structure – loses the sense of it – you lose the painting.

A BRIGHT WHITE LIGHT shines on FLAN who turns to see A TEACHER, in her forties, very pure and happy, hanging beautiful and brilliantly colored children's drawings in the air. FLAN'S VOICE echoes in this vast space

FLAN: Why are all your students geniuses in the second grade? Look at the first grade. Blotches of green and black. Look at third grade. Camouflage. But the second grade — your grade. Matisses everyone. You've made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade! What is your secret?

THE TEACHER: Secret? I don't have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.

I have no idea when to take the drawings away, but I keep wanting to be Matisse.

Campaigns & Barn Washings

I first wrote and published this in the summer of 2016 when the campaign for President was in full swing, when there was still hope in the air amidst the disgust of the fraction of a man the Republicans had put up as their candidate, when it seemed the United States couldn't go that far off the tracks. We know better now. Maybe I should have just moved to the country, preferably in Canada, to a beautiful place with an old barn, one in need of washing.

The piece has been updated slightly and has a fresh ending free of charge to all you who read it.

In today’s email I received messages from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and from Mike, a man offering to wash my barn. It’s a great day to be alive.

The campaign informs me that we are not meeting fundraising goals. At my old school, I used to run candy sales and manage the money at chicken barbecues to finance trips that management had stopped supporting but were no less vital to the kids and our school. I taught English some of the time but seemed to take as much time raising money, pushing kids to sell Butterfingers and Hershey bars. In the process I may have learned all I ever need to know about running a national campaign. It mostly has to do with not hitting fundraising goals and letting everyone know how much harder they need to work. I feel the campaign's pain.

Unlike candy sales and chicken barbecues, the campaign holds less promise of adventure as payoff. I mean, we'll get Hillary Clinton as President, someone up to the job, informed, albeit part of the machine. As long as we don't get the ass-clown the Republicans are putting up, it will be worth it. But that's slim reward compared to the school fundraising. We took kids on three-day trips to a great Adirondack camp and one-day trips into Manhattan. In the mountains there were kayaks and horseshoes and campfires with s’mores. In the city kids wandered Chinatown, bought Foakleys, ate the great pizza on Earth, and had the chance to slip supervision and score some NYC weed. Hillary is nice and all, but kind of like the under-ripe peach I’m reluctantly eating as I type this. It’s not exactly bad, but I can’t get excited about it.

What I do get excited about is barn washing. I don’t own a barn or the land on which to build one. I’m a writer not a farmer, but I have read Wendell Berry and E. B. White enough that it’s time to get out of the books and into a barn. Mike, the barn-washing fellow, first contacted me while I was on vacation in Florida. He sent prices and a schedule for doing the work. I told him his prices were good so far as I could tell, but that my experience with barn washing is limited by not having a barn. There was the chance that my brother, visiting our house to tend the cats and always on the lookout for a project, might have built one out back of our house. Even so, would such a new barn already require washing? I thanked him but regrettably declined the offer.

Mike sent more email a week later. We were home by then and I looked out the back windows imagining the barn, the chickens, a pig, and a cow. But I don't know anything about tending such animals and the city zoning is pretty strict about such things, so I erased the animals and just imagined the barn which seemed a pleasant place where maybe I could set up a writing desk near a wood stove. The whole thing felt more and more appealing with each passing moment. Mike's prices in this new email were the same so I knew he was an upstanding guy. In a P.S. he wrote, “Brian, let me know if you get this email. The last time I sent it to the wrong address.” Following instructions to the letter, I wrote back saying that I had indeed gotten his email and was reconsidering the wisdom of going through life without a barn to wash.

Today’s message, Mike's third, delighted me as I had gone weeks without speaking to him and, I’ll admit, had forgotten about barns dirty or clean. Sadly though, the message was just a repeat of the the second message and included the same P.S. I imagined Mike just in from a barn washing, his wet boots left on the map by the back door. He was at the computer thinking, this time I'll get the right Brian. But no. I, however, was undaunted. I wrote back immediately: “You’ve convinced me. I’m beginning construction of a barn tomorrow. Should be ready for a wash shortly thereafter.” I tell you, I’m still excited about it. I hope Mike is as well.

The Clinton campaign needs to generate this kind of excitement. A barn! What could be more exciting? I have visions of the Amish (and Harrison Ford) coming to raise the frame. My brother and I could side and roof it. Maybe I would get that cow and pig, those chickens and learn to tend them in secret so as not to invite a code violation from the city. Still, no matter how quiet I keep things, they are bound to make a mess. Then I’ll contact Mike to see if the prices still hold and we can schedule a washing. I bet he’ll be excited too.

There's a chicken barbecue every year about this time at a church in the Valley just down from the best ice cream I’ve ever known. The Clinton people can join my brother, Mike, and me for dinner and dessert. We can talk about candy sales, class trips, and livestock while pulling that sweet chicken off the bone. Then we can get ice cream in cones and drive to my house where I'll take them out back and show them the barn. It will be freshly cleaned and Mike will accept the pats on his back and maybe engage a few more barn owners in cleanings. We can finish our ice cream cones and feel what it takes to make people excited about big projects.

I can see it all now. The August sun is shining. We're all full from chicken and ice cream. The pig has come to the edge of its pen to be scratched. There are a few eggs in the barn. The cow is ready to be milked. The night is warm and the company is good. Mike is laughing at something one of the Clinton campaign people has just said. My brother is showing another the hayloft and rope swing inside the door. I stand in the yard marveling at the barn feeling that in this America, nothing could ever go too wrong.

Somewhere far away a cheer goes up for a strange and terrible man shouting incoherently about building dirty walls instead of barns made all the more beautiful by Mike's careful washing. The campaign really needs to raise more money.