Thou Shalt Remember


Sickness unto Rest

There’s a certain memory I do not want to remember. As you can see from my distancing language, I don’t even want to call it mine. But lately it keeps coming back into my mind—interrupting my thoughts at odd moments, and filling my attention when I happen to slow down.

The phrase that just came to my mind is “brought low.” Knowing what I don’t want to remember, I can see why.

Before I lived in New York, the words “brought low” would have had a ring of quaintness to them. I might have said the phrase in a kind of affectation, a blandly dramatic gesture that made vague fun of my self-centeredness. But at twenty-seven, with a masters degree in old books and the paginal equivalent of two theses to my name proving useless to the job market and more and more fruitless to myself; with so many scores of books and names and thoughts that formed the often shaking, sometimes crumbling sky-castled future I had built up in my mind; with two-households’ worth of student debt and a wage below a living; with viral tonsillitis in my throat and rancidity in my heart, I was, quite literally, brought low.

It was a sunny afternoon, and I was miserable. I was taking a quick break—really a panting respite—between my two jobs at the time. I had just entered “the workforce” and had found—I thought quite luckily, at first—a job teaching mornings in a Gifted and Talented third-grade classroom at a “High Achieving” New York public school. To attempt something approaching “supplemental,” I also worked afternoons as a mentor/“manny”-type to a preschool-age boy. Being my first year working in the school system, I quickly felt as if I was toiling beyond-time and falling sick semi-monthly. But as anyone who has worked multiple part-time jobs knows, sickness in such cases can be a kind of curse: you cannot rest for long, because you do not have the “time” (i.e. money) allotted to you; at a certain point, you may have to tax your health and simply shoulder through it, or else you face the extra tax and insupportable burden of empty hours and a shortened paycheck. What I had been struggling to carry, through too-many weeks of fever and sweat and pus and pangs, had turned my time into a desperate thirst for numbers. I drained my well-being to fill my timesheet. Continue reading “Thou Shalt Remember”

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Greatness


[For my mother.]

In the past year or so the word “great” has gained a peculiar currency. That currency may be starting to wane, at present, but I have continued to wonder what the term means for myself and others. For at least nine months I have been asking myself what greatness really looks like.

And what have I found? Continue reading “Greatness”

Pocket Picking

Pocket Pic

“They tell us that on the last day the sea will give up its dead; and I suppose that on the same occasion long strings of extraordinary things will come out of my pockets” (G.K. Chesterton, “What I Found in my Pocket”).

This is what I found in my pockets this week: keys, a pen, a wallet (mine), my cell phone, two bark chips, several wrung out flower petals (of unknown origin), a blue plastic bead, a ladybug hairclip (not mine), a Lego hand, and two broken pieces of white sea glass.

Who thinks about pockets these days? We take these poor, repressed, underpantsed things for granted.

When I stop to think about it, my pockets have always served me well. Without them, I would not be literally going places; without them I would not get home. I am convinced that on innumerable occasions they have saved my brow from the sweat of remembering, just as they have saved my mouth from admitting my poverty. I actually trust in my pockets. (In the case of money, of course, I trust my wallet as well. It is a double-coverage kind of faith.)[1] After all, a pair of pockets is a steadfast second set of hands.

But over the past several years, my pockets have begun to surprise me. In them I have noticed a new dual-importance growing. The first is vocational; the second is technological; both, you might say, are trans-personal. My pockets are connecting me to people.

The first is this: my work has involved my pockets in carrying more than my own personal effects. In teaching preschool- and kindergarten-age children, my pockets have become a veritable treasury of trinkets. Many’s the time I get an importunate hand pressing on my arm, with two round eyes leaning ever closer to me, and a little voice urging, “Hold this for me . . . Hold-this-for-me-please.” I only accept these miniscule burdens if the child doesn’t have any pockets of their own—if they are wearing a dress or sweatpants, or have those shallow, sewn-in flaps that hardly count (so why bother, Gymboree?)—or if the gewgaw in question would be safer with me—especially if it turns out to be Johnny’s mommy’s credit card, or Jane’s dad’s Masonic ring. But most of the time, when I take these tiny things upon myself, it is for the good grown-up reason that they are not appropriate in the activity or at school at all.

But lately—in truth, over the past decade or so—I have also noticed a presence in my pockets even more importunate—and, if it can be believed, even more imperious—than the nimbuses flaring from the children’s treasures. It has been burgeoning to a great concern, beyond an ingrained habit or a necessary evil, to the point of actual bodily care. It is my cell phone.

It rests in my pocket, but it emanates such an aura of utter relevance and necessity that I forget my very personal attachment to my pants. If I were to plunge into a lake, my heart would cry out for my phone, not my clothes or my life. Certainly not my hair. Were I to fall from a bridge, I am certain I would use the duration of the plummet to check if my phone was indeed woefully trapped in my pocket. I cannot completely disavow that the thought wouldn’t cross my mind of flinging it to the safety of dry land.[2]

(It’s not just me, of course. Whenever someone drops their phone the room gasps and flinches. The world watches in silent hopes of survival. If we happen to misplace our device, we sense the phantom phone inside our pocket or purse, despite what our fingers say. Sometimes it seems to me that the seat of my pocket, that place on my leg where a pocket has always resided, has now grown a mass in the shape of a phone. A sensory tumor.)

But it would be false to talk about my cell phone as a presence in my pocket without discussing what it really represents: people. Or, people of a certain sort. Indeed, I act as if I hold many people in my pocket. Some of them I communicate with directly, over literally long distances, as if they were virtually in the room; most of them I merely watch and scrutinize, or read as literal proofs of human errancy. To my mind they are manifestations of our “current situation,” which is always changing and ever increasingly urgent, sometimes doomsdayish. Whenever I have a free moment—even if it’s only an idle minute better spent staring into some suggestive texture on the wall—I pull these people out and try to “keep up.” Most of the time, when I am working or with real enfleshed people, I feel my cell phone’s clutches on me—a kind of vague and unwitting obsession with a thing that is merely sitting inside my pocket, yet a screen that is always promising to show me sign-people and threaded wonders. Continue reading “Pocket Picking”