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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Turning Sixty-one

 I turned sixty-one on St. Patrick's Day with the same sense of relief and liberty I felt when I turned sixty.  A year ago I remember telling Bill and Veronica that it's as if I'm finally the age I'm meant to be, and I continue to feel that.  Sometimes.  Other times I have to remind myself that I'm an adult, not a teen or twenty-something.  I wonder what that means?

At sixty, I decided to drop out of the fray, where a lot of self-dramatizing heat is generated but not much light.  Perhaps it's that I have enough history behind me that I realize that the newest crisis (is some diligent administrator wondering, again, what the English Department is up to?) is just business as usual.  I wonder, for example, how many earthquakes and tropical storms have occurred in my lifetime?  So the "mini-disasters" that loom on the professional horizon are gradually projected against the context of real wars, against the loss of homes and lives and stability.  Perhaps having history behind me is also humbling:  I'm not the centre of the universe, thank goodness.  When others feel threatened, as if disaster's about to strike, it's my job, first, to be very still and to listen carefully.  Then I try to bring some perspective to bear without mocking anyone else's take on things.

We'll have to see what my students think this term, but I also think that being sixty-one is changing my teaching.  Last year at this time, I was trying to throw pots to do research for Soul Weather, my next novel, which has a young ceramicist as a main character.  I'm a terrible potter, but that doesn't mean I didn't learn anything.  I learned that you can work very hard at something and still not be very good, so our students need their dignity to be left in tact when they don't do well in English classes.  I also learned that it's very hard, on a beautiful spring afternoon, to go into a windowless pottery studio and practice something you have absolutely no feel for.  In fact, it's very hard to practice anything you're not particularly good at.

I also feel less compelled to diagnose and figure out how to "fix" the "weaknesses" of the current generation of students because I'm not going to be teaching them much longer.  Instead, I opt for curiosity.  Find out where they are and take them farther.  There's no point berating them for where they are, and it isn't something any individual can fix; it's the product of a very complex society, culture, and education system, of things like the internet, which has probably created the most enormous change human beings have ever experienced.  It's not something I'm going to "fix," though I can perhaps urge them to be self-reflective about the forces awash around them.  Curiosity continues to be a good friend.  Much better than making judgements.

In fact, except when it comes to the environment, I want to "fix" things less.  About a year ago, Veronica offered me a wonderful motto to go along with "just be curious":  you can't fix all the idiots.  But please, can't we have some leadership so that I don't have to go around in the dead of night putting "the power of my car is in inverse ratio to the size of my penis" bumpers stickers on SUVs and Hummers?" 

I can now admit that I'm not very good at multi-tasking; my senior brain finds it a stretch.  Maybe this allows me to be a reality check for those in my life, particularly my students, who are multi-tasking their way to wherever the opposite of being in the present moment is.  In fact, I'm feeling a certain adolescent rebellion (is being a senior essentially a third adolescence--the first one being the terrible twos?) against a society that demands I live my life at a certain speed and a certain level of instantaneous connection.  Right now, zany Sheba is purring and bathing while she's leaned against my left thigh.  That's important.  So are the birds outside my kitchen window and the music of our second language learners' voices in the University of Regina hallways.

Because I'm finding it harder to multi-task, I have a wonderful crew of imaginary friends (particularly in the kitchen after a complicated day) that I can talk to.  At least that's what I tell Bill, who wonders if I'm talking to him.

I've spend most of my professional career feeling as if I'm a fake who's just about to be discovered.  Feeling like you're a fake continues to dog women and academics (because you can never know enough).  Something complicated has happened here.  First, I feel much less like a fake.  I think, again, it's having history at my back, having years and years of experience and thought behind me.  I'm not a brilliant scholar, but I love stories, words, and ideas--a love I can pass on to the young, whom I merely guide to finding their own ways of understanding them.  But second, it doesn't really matter because most of us are just doing our best, joyfully making it up as we go along.

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