the literary life 9/13/09
Each day is marked by unexpected conversations and questions. As a teacher, friend, and average citizen of this world, I am often confronted by situations where I don't know exactly how to respond. Maybe a friend calls and confesses she feels down. Maybe a stranger at a coffee shop asks an intrusive question. Maybe a family member asks for my opinion on a new business idea. Maybe a student is being contentious. The possible situations are endless.
Sometimes I just want to shake my head and sign, IDK: I don't know.
But often I find myself trying to verbalize the perfect response, which leaves me feeling ridiculously ambitious and sad. I try to over-console someone or say something overly-encouraging. Or I find myself barking out the word NO at an intrusive question. Or I feel backed into a corner, where there are two ways I might respond, and either response feels ridiculous. Or I don't know whether to shout or shy away.
At times like this one might ask, what would Buddha do? Or what would my favorite uncle (who always seems to know exactly how to find the right words) do? I envy people who have the verbal gift and ability to be just consoling enough, self-loving enough, and opinionated enough. It's a real skill: finding the right words in the moment, balancing strength with eloquence, balancing seriousness with humor. Caring enough about oneself and others to speak with excellence. Being decisive without coming off like an ice pick. It's about having wisdom, wisdom, wisdom.
And I can, on some lucky days, be good at this. I am a teacher. My job involves public speaking, thinking in the moment. Still, at the core, I am first a writer, and there is something liberating about the page where there is room to cross things out and revise. Where one may pause as long as one wants between the sentences to take an absurdly long breath. In the game of life, in verbal encounters--decisions are made in the moment, in a matter of seconds, and there's less time to edit.
I guess it boils down to trusting ourselves and knowing ourselves, as good old Socrates advised. The better we know ourselves, define ourselves, and appreciate our unique sense of the world, the less we struggle with knowing what to say. And like writing, speaking is a skill. It's something to hone. A kind of art. We don't have to be perfect at it right away. Though I guess back when I was in college, I was expecting by this time I would be. I'm better at it, sure. But I'm still an apprentice: in some matters, we never stop being students.
I guess what got me thinking about all this was a week of rocky encounters. Manageable encounters for the most part, but I could feel myself at times wanting something magical to intervene, to hear an angel whispering the right response in my ears. The thing is, when I don't handle the day to day stuff with enough elegance, I feel guilty or frustrated afterwards. I want to believe IDK: I DO know. I want to believe I can be more patient with myself and others--give my best self more often. At least, rain or shine, I have my writing to turn to. But I wish I knew how to bring the poet in me out more routinely in ordinary interactions.
Could even our most banal and average conversations be opportunities to "write" poems?