Even those who don’t go to yoga may have heard this bit of yoga lingo, “Namaste.”
I have heard yoga teachers translate this as “the light within me honors and recognizes the light within you,” or “the divine within me recognizes the divine within you.” Although it can sometimes feel like a brief moment of spirituality or philosophy slapped onto the end of an exercise program, this greeting that indicates interconnection can be a good starting place for thinking about how we conduct ourselves off the mat.
I was reminded of this recently when listening to a favorite podcast. On Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft’s Happier podcast (http://gretchenrubin.com/podcast/), they recently featured listeners’ manifestos. The short lists of rules to live by that the audience presented applied to many aspects of life, but I was particularly struck by a teacher’s manifesto.
Among the many good precepts of her teaching manifesto was this: presume good intentions.
In other words, give the benefit of the doubt. None of us perceive ourselves as the villains of our own life stories. We attribute good intentions to our own actions. What happens when we attribute these good intentions to our students, or others in our lives? To make Namaste a little secular and banal, what if we really do acknowledge the light within the other people we meet?
And I’m not saying this is easy! As a fellow teacher, I know that this is likely on that other teacher’s manifesto list because it is hard to do and a practice that requires constant reminding.
But it’s also a reminder worth having in mind. At mid semester, I find myself tired. My students are also tired. The shine is off the semester by this point, and crises, both real and fabricated are starting to emerge. This semester, some 300 students are in my classes. In the last week or so, I have heard about student illness, students’ parents’ illness, and tales of domestic abuse, car crashes, opportunities that cannot be missed, and a tragic accident at a fraternity house.
Some of these are no doubt fiction. But some are true.
When I am very tired and at the end of my rope, I find a nasty voice inside me doubting my students, presuming the worst. It’s an unpleasant feeling—I become an adversary pitted against those very people who I hope to coach and encourage.
In contrast, I find that when I presume the best and work with a student to make their success possible, I feel better…. even if I am perhaps being a dupe at that moment—what is the most charitable reason I can find for being duped? And often, I’m not being duped. For a young man who needed to take his exam late because he was spending time in the hospital with the friend injured at the fraternity party, his goodness in supporting his friend was something that was easy for me to support. The thing is, in many cases, giving the benefit of the doubt need not be effortful, it’s just a habit we can fall out of.
I happen to know that this student’s story was true because news of the accident has circulated quickly around the campus, but even when uncertain, there are costs to attributing bad intentions. In her blog post, “Academia, Love Me Back,” Tiffany Martinez writes about a professor marking “not your words” on a paper when, in fact, the writing was Ms. Martinez’s own work (https://vivatiffany.wordpress.com/2016/10/27/academia-love-me-back/). In her post, she writes of the pain, anger, and doubt she feels as a result of this casual, and uncharitable comment.
For me, this young woman’s story again drove home the point that believing in the good of others is a pretty low cost activity, but not so the reverse.
Grumpy, grumpy, grumpy. Last Sunday night, the babies in the house kept the grown-ups running. It had rained all day, unusual for Nevada, and this meant that the fur baby didn’t get her walks. Instead, she got a bunch of treats because we felt guilty. In retrospect: not a great idea. Meanwhile, the skin baby is getting her top teeth and is uncharacteristically fussy.
Over the course of the evening one or the other of them cried every hour on the hour. Fur baby needed to be let out again and again and again to hunch miserably in the yard and shake her bottom two and fro; and skin baby was just flippin’ pissed, wanting to be held, jamming her little fists in her mouth, and wailing at the top of her lungs.
Mom and dad did not meet the morning with a smile.
Mondays are my heavy teaching days, difficult days to squeeze in writing and yoga even when I am in top form.
Additionally, because every member of the household was feeling junky and logy, we were slow to get out the door, which only added to my grumpiness. I write in the morning, so if we are late to drop me at the coffee shop on the way to daycare, that little sliver of writing time is ever more diminished. As I dragged the poor loos-stooled fur baby around the block and watched my husband fill and label the skin baby’s bottles for daycare sooo slowly (has any man ever mixed formula and wielded a sharpie with less sense of hustle!), I could feel my jaw clenching, that tight feeling rising in my chest.
Finally, after what seemed like eons of finding clean baby socks, figuring out where wallets were hidden overnight, and so on, my computer and I reunited at the coffee shop for what was now twenty-five minutes of writing time, 30 if I decided I didn’t need to pee before teaching.
I could feel myself starting to make the excuses, feel the pull of Facebook, of twitter, those siren calls. But I also remembered the wise and very moderate advice of a woman with whom I once shared a writing group. In our message board about writing goals, successes, and failures, she offered that on truly hellacious days her goal for her writing project was “just touch it.”
I like the modesty of this goal. It’s sneaky modest. Even if Nike’s slogan is too bold and brash for a total crap day when fumes and third cup of coffee are all that keep you from sobbing in a little heap under the desk, surely, no writer worth her salt can claim that she doesn’t have time to just touch her document. Like I said, the “just touch it” slogan is sneaky modest.
For me on the tired day, I was able to check a fact, and the answer to my research question caused me to slightly revise my argument. I wrote about 500 words based on this new information using the trusty and terrifying WriteorDie app. I also made a list of tasks to discuss with my undergraduate research assistant. Not earthshaking stuff, to be sure. But also better than nothing.
Also, whereas logging in to social media would likely have perpetuated my grump cycle (X politician said WHAT!!!!), I had the minor victory of doing a little work to carry me into my teaching day. I didn’t need to accomplish everything when I was exhausted. Just a touch.
I’ve noticed a pattern in the instructions of some of the yoga teachers whose classes I visit regularly. When the time comes to practice yogic splits (Hanumanasa—Monkey pose), they’ll ask the students in the class to close their eyes.
There are lots of good, noble reasons for this, I suppose. The instruction to close the eyes is a cue from the teachers to take the ego out—the pelvis doesn’t have to come all the way down to the floor to be in the pose—and to pay attention to the physical sensations and the way breathing can help ease the way into a challenging pose.
That’s all fine.
But sometimes I think it’s also because our various Hanumanasanas look like crap and a good teacher knows that seeing the teacher’s pose and our own, wonky, tilted, far-from-the-floor nutter poses is nothing if not disheartening. So, close your eyes.
I’ve been thinking a little bit about this feeling from which wise yoga teachers shield their students—that painful gap between what one can do and what one wishes to do.
This summer, I was invited by a literary journal to contribute a personal essay. In my professional writing life, I make academic arguments for my living, not imaginative, lovely personal essays. When I read the email requesting work from me, I was deeply honored but also deeply scared.
The thing is, I love writing and want desperately to be a good writer. But, like most wannabe writers, I am also a reader, and the writers whose work I return to most are not just good, but scary brilliant. When I think about the great essayists, I think of Joan Didion’s unsparing prose, her sense of her era, her home state, and herself captured with unflinching clarity. Or, I think of the wonderful contemporary essayist Eula Bliss, whose Notes from No Man’s Land made me want to run out into the streets and shake strangers by their lapels, so ferocious and heartbreaking an account it gives of race and life in America. I’d never put myself in the company of these writers, but given the opportunity to work in their form, I at least wanted to approximate a shadow of their work.
The ever-generous Ira Glass of This American Life has created a wonderful account of the problem I’ve been experiencing. If you do an Internet search for “Ira Glass taste gap” or “Ira Glass creative gap,” you’ll find videos with the text overlaid by Glass’s reassuringly nerdy voice explaining, “there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?”
Because most of us are consumers, sometimes rabid ones, of the thing we aspire to make, we are often faced with the painful realization that our work is not that great. I experience this regularly myself and I see it in my students as well.
A couple summers ago, a local Tahoe art studio offered locals free drawing notebooks and a weekly email prompt to inspire we denizens of the Northern Sierra to develop a sketching habit. I was pregnant at the time and casting around for things to do with my increasing immobile, and uncomfortable self. Drawing!, I thought, this could be a fun thing I do over the summer.
It was not. It was neither fun nor was it a thing I did over the summer.
Instead, after trying to fulfill what seemed at the outset a lighthearted and whimsical prompt, I gave up after an embarrassing fit of rage. The instruction was to draw a personal crest adorned with meaningful symbols. I wanted to decorate mine with an image of my dog, a yoga mat, and a typewriter. What I produced was something like a dog emoji, a fruit roll-up, and a square covered in lots of other squares—this last, unrecognizable as the object it was meant to portray.
Too, I recall a student turning in an essay, and proudly telling me that I’d be impressed by a word she had used: “I wrote, by putting the two authors in juxtapose, we can see their similarity.” She was wrong and she was right. She was wrong because she was reaching for the word juxtaposition, not the verb form she had used. But she was right to guess I’d be impressed with her—as someone who knows the terror of stretching for a new skill, I appreciated the effort, even if the result was a misfire.
The thing is, this particular student would never get to juxtaposition without falling into the valley of error that was juxtapose. For me, I’m ashamed to say that I gave up on drawing. But I wrote that invited essay. It was a stretch, and it didn’t glimmer or fully express all the contradictions of middle-class American life that I meant it to convey, but it’s me on the path working towards something just out of reach and which I’m willing to go through some ugly stretches, some bad work to achieve.
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote