so you want to be a human?

“if it doesn’t come bursting out of you/ in spite of everything, / don’t do it.” –Charles Bukowski, “so you want to be a writer?”

His whole poem is *bursting* with little gems like this one — a lot of reasons not to be a writer. My students love it because they immediately latch on to the “don’t do it” part. I gently explain to them that he is talking about being a writer, not writing an assignment for a class. (Two very, very different things.)

I have to say, I enjoy a little Bukowski sentiment in my life occasionally. His self-righteous, smug nonchalance feeds my own privileged, first-world ego. So what if writing doesn’t burst out of me. I have the privilege to write. Or not write. (Also I don’t write for money. Or fame much of an audience — if your eyeballs are reading these words, WOW! And thanks! So I don’t write novels. So I don’t write for a living. A privilege it is, indeed, that I write whenever and however I want. I don’t have anything riding on it.)

But beyond the privilege element, I appreciate the organic nature of living — not forcing yourself to do certain jobs, to like certain things, to be certain ways. It also makes me seriously question the entire American schooling system — learning certain things, learning certain ways, learning at certain times, etc. I’m afraid that we’re gobbling and slurping the joy right out of it, all in the name of “knowing what’s/when’s/how’s best.” And while our motives are good — raise smart kids to go to good colleges to get good jobs to “make a difference in our world” — I think the foie gras approach is maybe not the best. Students are stressed and tired, anxiety issues are at an all-time high, and rarely do students get to explore what they are naturally curious about.

If, as a teacher, I rigidly stuck to the curriculum all year every year, I would . . . maybe die. And if not death, certainly I would become a rule-following robot simply beeping out the lesson of the day. The beauty of a school with flesh-and-blood humans as teachers is that we’re just that: humans. We have complex minds that stray from the curriculum when need be.

Sometimes when we stray from talking about enjambment

in a poem, time frees up to talk about how we don’t know who we are

without our stuff.

Recently, I had a student fill out an evaluation on me and my class, and she wrote that sometimes I and the students go off on tangents and that we should stick to the topic. And while I agree that a certain knowledge base should be taught in a class that is preparing for an AP exam in May, some of the “tangents” we have I’d argue aren’t even tangents at all. When a poem makes you look inward, it’s not a tangent. When a novel makes you question why you’re sitting in a desk surrounded by four walls, it’s not a tangent. When I tell the students a story of a caller to a radio show arguing about the placement of a “deer crossing” sign because it’s a dangerous place for deer to cross, it’s a tangent. But sometimes our brains need a break and we need to laugh and we need to be reminded of our humanness.

I don’t know why, but sometimes stories like Donna and the Deer Crossing Signs come bursting out of me.

The problem is when we’re in situations or jobs that allow us no “bursting” freedom. If you feel like that’s you, my privileged self would tell you to leave! Change your situation! Quit, and get a different job! I know enough about my blog audience to know that you’re probably set up well enough to do it.

So do it already.

I might rewrite Bukowski’s poem to expand it beyond being a writer — and take a slightly different approach:

“so you want to be a rule-following robot”

if you want life and vitality to come bursting out of you
in spite of everyone telling you how to live
don’t be it.
if you don’t want to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
don’t be it.
if you want to think
and have opinions
and questions
and dissent,
don’t be it.
if you want joy
and fulfillment
and belly laughs(-till-you-cry),
don’t be it.
don’t be like so many robots,
don’t be like so many thousands of
robots who call themselves humans,
don’t be dull and boring and
the statisticians of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your robot number.
don’t add to that.
don’t be it.

if you can see the sunrise
and be flooded with possibilities
and be overwhelmed with beauty
and be overcome by life itself
to the point of a tear forming in the
corner of your eye,
then you’ll be a human, my friend.

I think my disdain for rule-following robots is clear, but I wonder what Bukowski would say about them. I think he might believe that following rules at all is bad. And this is where we’d differ. There are plenty of rules I follow:

  • For the most part, I follow the law. Do I occasionally speed or slow-slide through stop signs? Yes.
  • When I play games, I am one to try to follow the rules. And I confess, I do get annoyed when people don’t want to follow the rules. Last year at my school’s gift exchange, we got to the very end, and the last person to go got her own gift. She declared that we should open the game back up so that she didn’t end up with the gift she brought. I was not in favor of this. But that’s what we did, and she got the gift she wanted (and took it away from someone who thought the game was over). It’s silly, I know, but it just seemed selfish to me. AND WE BROKE THE RULES.
  • I minimally follow the rules at school. This means that if it’s a rule I think is dumb or busywork, I’ll probably follow it — but in the most minimal, least-amount-of-effort way. And will I still gripe? Yeah, probably. It’s something I need to work on, for sure.
  • I have this fear of being reprimanded, so I try to follow general rules of social conduct when I’m out and about. This mostly means that I don’t let my boys climb up onto the shelves at BJ’s, disappear into the clothing racks at Marshall’s (Narnia, clearly), or push their kid-carts careening down the aisles of Trader Joe’s while other bug-eyed shoppers frantically swerve their carts and dive out of the way and into the frozen bags of asparagus risotto. I used to not let my kids sit in the large section of the cart because it’s against the rules (according to what’s written on the plastic piece on the baby seat, that is). Yeah, I just don’t care about that one anymore, mostly because I don’t think anyone else cares.

The point for me is to avoid being a robot. Know the rules before you break the rules. Be aware of the rules you do follow. Know why you follow them. Bukowski’s screw-it-all philosophy doesn’t quite work in the real world. But if we can find a balance between following rules (and conventions and norms) and being true to ourselves (and our motivations and our desires), that’s where the magic is.

So if being a writer means you wait until “it comes out of / your soul like a rocket,” we might be here awhile, waiting for your book to be published. But on the flip side, if you’re writing (or fill-in-the-blanking) just because you’re supposed to (or expected to) but really don’t enjoy it, do something else. Or change your mindset. Or change something.

Poems that have influenced my life (and this particular blog post):

Attendance-Question Monday (and wisdom from a curmudgeon)

“They never had much, but they always had enough.” –Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ove

Let me start by saying that if you haven’t read this book or seen the movie, put it on your to-do list. And even though I’m only 93 pages into the book, I’d already (with confidence) advise reading the book first. (Update: If you follow my blog, you’ll remember I was reading The Water Dancer last week. Finished it. It was great. Read my short review on Goodreads here.)

Do yourself a favor and read the book first — surprise. It has quite a bit of internal monologue that is hilarious and devastating that you just don’t get from watching the movie.

This particular quote comes when now-curmudgeony Ove is reflecting on his childhood and, specifically, money and material goods his parents had. They may not have had much, but they had
-food on the table.
-a roof over their heads.
-shoes on their feet and clothes on their backs.

I was drawn to the quote for its simplicity, its structure (look at the beauty of the antithesis of never and always), and its meaning. The idea that never having much and always having enough don’t have to be mutually exclusive? That’s gold.

What’s particularly troubling, though, is that many of us have much . . .

but we still don’t feel we have enough.

It’s dizzying thinking about how much stuff we have. And while I could write endlessly about our “stuff” problem (see one of my posts here . . . and another one here), what I’d like to tap into today is not about having enough. . .

but about being enough.

Today for attendance-question Monday, I asked my students what “the ideal age is.” I received a range of answers, from 4 to 99 with the mode answer being 25. Their reasoning ranged from being a kid with no responsibility and a play-all-day lifestyle to being old and retired and not having to do anything except go to church once a week with the wife. We enjoyed thinking about the question, and some of the students had some wacky and fun answers.

What troubled me, though, is that none of them answered with their current age. And I can’t fault them. I wouldn’t have as a stress-ball teenager, either.

I just had a birthday yesterday, and wow I am thankful to be the age that I am. I would never choose to be younger (I wouldn’t know what I know now, and I don’t like the idea of going backwards). And I wouldn’t presume to know that any age above mine is ideal. I told the students that when I was 25, I definitely thought, “THIS. This is it. This is the ideal age. I love it.” But then I turned 26, and … 30, and … 38, and every time I thought, “THIS. This is it!” I love how every year of my life brings with it new experiences, new knowledge, and new sentences that I read and write.

The students (and probably lots of humans) default to thinking that any age other than their own is better. This makes me sad. And it makes me wonder if they believe that they are enough.

And even though I am very happy in life, I most definitely have seasons of feeling like I’m not enough — like maybe another age might be better. This year, because I’m nursing a now 9-month-old, I come home from school every day instead of staying at school to pump. This has been great, but has resulted in my not eating lunch with my “school friends” in the break room every day. It’s also resulted in my missing weekly lunch meetings with a group of Young Life girls. I miss these humans. And as I go through the year, I notice little things here and there that they’re doing that I miss. I’ve strapped myself in, the lap bar locks, I lurch forward, and just like that I’m careening down and around on the roller coaster of . . .

insecurity. I feel like I’m missing out. I feel like my friends maybe aren’t my friends. And I feel like I’m not enough.

I know this season will come to an end, but I’m realizing more and more (the older I get), that there are certain things in life that are simply outside of my control. I have chosen to breastfeed my baby, and that means I don’t spend as much time with certain people. That is my choice. What’s outside of my control is how those people will respond. I have to actively refuse to let things outside of my control affect my happiness. I have to actively refuse to let things outside of my control affect my feelings of not being enough.

And even though this has been a difficult season in terms of friendships, it’s not to say that it’s been all bad. One friendship in particular has deepened, and I am incredibly thankful for that. At (now) 38 years old, I am feeling the best I’ve ever felt. I love life and feel blessed to live it.

It’s baffling (and funny) to think that at 25 I really thought I knew who I was and what I believed. I’ve had quite the seismic shift since then — not only with life circumstances (grad school, jobs, houses) but with people (losing my mom, having a baby, having another baby, losing my dad, having another baby). When my students gave their answers, I don’t think they were thinking about other humans in their lives. And other humans are so very important.

But even with the sad seasons in this life (death of parents or even death of certain friendships), there is still so much (read: enough) fulfillment in this life. Every year of my life, I learn so many things about myself, about my marriage, about my kids, about teaching, about my students, about sourdough bread, about healthier lifestyle choices, about God, about life. And it’s enough! In the best way, it’s enough.

Ironically what the students hate the most about life (school) is what I’ve come to believe is one of the best things about life (learning). Granted, my learning is not inside a classroom with a witch-for-a-teacher who scuttles around giving lots of assignments and quizzes and tests and projects and grades and memorization of poems. And after writing that sentence, I’m in no hurry to be back in school. But learning to be a better human? I pray I never stop. And while learning looks different on everyone, here are some ways I use it to make every year my ideal year:

  • Learn through reading books. (SURPRISE! I bet you never saw this one coming.) Read all sorts: literary fiction, fluff fiction, non fiction, religious texts, reputable news articles and Op-Eds. You’re learning writing style, vocabulary, content, and . . . empathy. It’s all good. And it’s a great little escape sometimes, too.
  • Learn to write for an audience. Though I may have a total of three people who read every single thing I write, it’s still been such a wonderful learning experience for me to be disciplined in my writing. I think it’s making me a better teacher and a better human.
  • Learn to eat real food. As the wise Michael Pollan says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I learn by reading books about food and watching documentaries about food and trusting my gut. I learn more each year, and that’s fun. Where I’m at right now is trying to eat minimal amounts of animal products. We’ll see what I learn in another ten years.
  • Learn to sleep better. I listen to podcasts about it. I read about it. Then I sleep on it.
  • Learn to exercise outside on occasion and get some Vitamin D (from the actual sun).
  • Learn how to have meaningful discussions with people. One of my favorite times in my relationship with my husband is when we sit down to watch something together but pause it after a couple minutes to talk about some random thing and never end up un-pausing because we just keep talking for two hours and then it’s bed time. Whew! Having someone in my life that I really enjoy talking to is something I don’t take for granted.
  • Learn new things in the kitchen. It’s fun. And rewarding (most times).
  • Learn to let go of the things outside of your control (like pesky traffic lights, for one).
  • Learn that God created this beautiful earth for us to live our best lives. Believe that God made us to be enough.