Posts Tagged ‘Life’

Go Forth, And?

Posted: May 15, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

My niece and goddaughter, Mary is graduating from Notre Dame this Sunday with a Bachelor’s of Science in Chemistry. Sadly, I can’t attend the ceremony because Notre Dame takes commencement as seriously as football. There are no extra tickets; there are no extra hotel rooms. It will be a spectacle, as it should be.

I was in college when my niece was born. I remember being delighted that my sister, Margo, and her husband, Mark, chose me to be Mary’s godmother.

I think I’ve done what I can to shape Mary’s life in a positive way, and I know she has done the same for me. In the twenty years since my college graduation (yup), I have experienced many, many things. I won’t bother to categorize them. Life experiences do not line up in neat rows, though advice can.

marys

Christmas gifts 2015, books (tradition) on life after college!

Because I love my niece, and I am immensely proud of her accomplishment, and that of so many other young college students who worked hard to achieve their educational goals, I shall enter into the tradition of passing on wisdom as part of the rites of the commencement season.

I have a fair amount of experience in these matters. I attend two college graduations each year in my capacity as a professor here at good ol’ RMU. It is always an incredibly special day for the graduates, and I am eager to hear (and critique) the commencement address because I like the genre (see my post from last year), and I believe in education, and rituals, and getting dressed up only to have to wait patiently for something to begin.

So, as my smart, sweet, spectacular niece graduates, and begins, in earnest, her long voyage through adulthood, I’d like to offer her advice, as an honest attempt to impart something valuable.

Your Professional Life

Work is at the core of everything. Tying your shoes is work. Doing so requires preparation, learning, effort, repetition, mastery, and it is a skill that we will lose in the end, each of us reduced to Velcro shoes and meandering down lonely halls. Sunny, I know. Be grateful for what you know and use it while you can.

The work we all do enriches our lives. Do work you can be proud of, and create a positive, productive relationship with both the work you want to do and you must do.

Whatever your profession, cultivate teamwork. Collaborate, cooperate. Get and be inspired. If a colleague (or two) irritates you, consider why. Is this person’s unpleasant behavior something you can avoid? If he is petty, his choices should remind you to act with generosity. If she is unreliable, take the cue to be trustworthy. All flaws are opportunities for growth.

As far as salary: ask for more. Counter the initial offer. Establish a sense of your worth and negotiate for a higher starting pay, as all percentage increases arise from this original number.passion

Your Passionate Life

Bring passion to your daily life in any way possible. Engaging in activities you adore, and doing these things with love is a tremendous gift..

Do things that make you keenly aware of the unassailable life within and around you, dance, shout, paint, hike, play.

Develop passionate connections with others. Be glad of heartbreak, for those who repress or suppress their feelings live not nearly so well.

Love with abandon.

Your Daily Life

Life can become suffused with seemingly mindless routines. Certain things need to be done. I offer you what I consider to be among the best of the conclusions I have come to in life. Every time you find yourself thinking that you “have to” do something, pause and contemplate this: you “get to” as well.

Consider, we all “have to” wash the dishes.

We also “get to” wash the dishes.

We are granted the opportunity to wash dishes through a remarkable array of good fortune. In order to wash dishes, we must have food, access to water, a home in which we can cook and eat, and, often, people we love to cook for. Herein lies the great mystery of day to day contentment; embrace the magnificence of the mundane moments.

Your Inner Life

Expend considerable effort developing your spirit, which is the combination of your unique, authentic self and the inner resources necessary to survive when faced when difficulties and thrive when offered opportunities.

The surest way to build your spirit is to be as honest with yourself as possible. Address your demons; catalog your fears. They exist, so get acquainted.

The only other thing you can do is feed your inner well in the ways that make the most sense to you—often through interaction with something bigger, more extraordinary than you are. Connecting with the world, through the infinite and infinitesimal wonders of nature or the joys of other people, seems to be the only effective means of alleviating the pain that accompanies living.

Your Own Life

Do not waiver in your sacred duty to yourself. Do what you will, make mistakes. Attempting to avoid making a mistake is just another mistake to make. Life will not last. Years take wing. Do what you can each day to enjoy your one and only life: savor it.

Above all else, make life something you are proud to call your own.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

I was sitting on the end of the fifth row inside the Rubloff Auditorium at the Art Institute of Chicago when someone came up alongside me.

“You’re Paul, right?”

A young woman was standing there smiling at me. I said, “Yes?” as I wondered how she knew me. Debt collector? Friend of a bitter ex-girlfriend? Rabid Turtle fan?

“I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Anna. I was in your writing class.”

“Ooooooh! Annnnnnaaaaaa! How are you!!!?”

I had no clue.

I assumed she was a student from Robert Morris University where I teach now, but after several minutes and questions, I gradually deduced she was a student from my alma mater Lewis University, where I was an adjunct instructor in 2007.

ITenthn her hands was a copy of “Tenth of December” by George Saunders, the author we were there to see. When our conversation paused, I used that to ask an obvious question, “Are you a Saunders fan?”

My own introduction to George Saunders came along an odd, serendipitous path.

In early 2006, I was working on my M.A. in Writing at DePaul University with a concentration in Creative Writing. Fiction was my passion. My Fiction Professor, after reading some of my stories, told me, “Your writing is similar to George Saunders. Have you read him?”

Eh.

Like all English majors and creative writers, I have been told of a thousand authors I “have to read!” by classmates, professors, friends, baristas, garbagemen, podiatrists….

I ignored the suggestion.

Three years later, I am taking a Fiction class as part of my MFA in Fiction at Roosevelt University. After reading my work, the head of the program tells me, “Your work is reminiscent of George Saunders. Have you read him?”

I confess I have not, but admit that someone has floated that comparison before.

Still, I read nothing by Saunders.

Soon after this recommendation, I am at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago for a sold out show with one of my favorite authors, David Sedaris. At the end of Sedaris’ shows, he always recommends a book that he is reading and enjoying. Take a wild guess which author Sedaris recommended.

“ALRIGHT ALREADY!” I thought.

I was instantly in love with Saunders’ work. It is brilliant, moving, and funny – three things I try to be in my fiction. Thus, the comparisons now made sense.

However, keep in mind what my professors’ comparisons really meant. Saying “You remind me of Saunders” was actually a polite way of saying, “There’s an author who does what you try to do….and he does it WAY better than you’ll EVER do it. Ya, you should probably study up on him.”

So, they were not saying, nor am I saying, that I’m as good a writer as a bestselling, MacArthur Genius Grant winning author. I’m damn sure not. But he was being brought up as someone I might learn from and emulate.

Now, years later, I am in the Rubloff Auditorium. Now, I’m a professor who has read all of his work, and even teaches some of it. I hesitated to attend. Despite being an English professor and a writer, traditional readings don’t excite me much.

Beyond that, I didn’t know if I could tolerate a Q&A session involving a famous author and an audience of young, aspiring writers – exactly the same as me in my early/mid-20s. The Q&As are all the same. All the young writers raise their hands and ask absurdly detailed and nonsensical questions about the craft of writing: “If I were to use a calculated series of semicolons inside a parenthetical statement that is actually a quote that is being said as part of a narrating character’s inner monologue, will this capture the core strife of socioeconomic imbalance between the modern family dynamic and allow the development of thematic qualities that….”

Oh, just shut the hell up.

It’s ridiculous. Not just the question itself, but because all of the questions – at their heart – are asking the exact same question:

“How do I get to be as great a writer as you?”

It’s as if they expect the famous author to spit up knowledge into their mouth like a mama bird, and suddenly they too will now be a bestselling author.

Mostly, the Q&A went exactly that way and I was drifting in and out of the discussion. But then Saunders said something that punched me right in my cynical face.

He talked about how writers should seek to draw from what is deep and familiar within them. He gave the analogy of how we all fall back to what we do best when we’re in a bind. How do we act when we get in trouble, or need one great pickup line, or need to impress and employer. He said his reservoir was and is humor and sentimentality. I would identify the same way. Hence, the comparisons were starting to solidify.

He then went on to advise, “Accept the part of you that you previously considered unliterary.”

Boom. Mind blown.

It was not a ground-breaking point, but it was phrased in a way that struck me particularly hard. In essence, I took it to mean that we need to draw on and accept our strengths even if they are deemed unconventional or wrong for our fields, degrees, or occupations.

For creative writing students like me, we go through writing degrees that attempt to program us into faded copies of our literary forebearers. “Forget about what YOU do well! Here’s what you MUST do; here’s what literature IS!”

In his most famous TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson also talks about this idea of how school educates us out of our creative capacities and devalues and discourages our skills and talents if they do not match those that are most immediately valued by academia and the workforce.

After over 8 years of schooling in creative writing, I had been asked to evolve and emulate so much, that what I grew up loving to do became an absolute chore. As a kid, I loved writing stories and telling stories. By the time I made it halfway through my MFA, I hated even the thought of writing fiction. I had no fun doing it anymore. It’s no fun to spend my time trying to write like and be like other people, and I’ve found no success in writing that way. (Side note: most creative writing programs would ardently argue that they don’t do this – that they are actually encouraging everyone to embrace the writer they are. Complete B.S.)

With writing, like all professions, there is the problem that – for as much as creativity and innovation is lauded – the norm is too often what gets promoted.

And so, here is Anna standing next to me and I don’t recognize her. However, she clearly remembers me. Obviously she knew my name, but then she goes into specifics about what we did in class, what papers we wrote, and what specific topics she wrote about. I now knew which class she had been in.

And then she laughed. It was a distinctive laugh, and suddenly it triggered my memory. I instantly knew what class she was in, what room we had, which desk she sat in – all of it.

As we continued to talk, it hit me: a student I had in class over a half-decade ago remembers me, and was impacted enough in my class to still know my name, to know what we did in class, and to have liked me enough to want to come say hello.

On the drive home, it dawned on me: Saunders’ advice to “accept the part of you that you previously considered unliterary” is not just true of writing, but of life. Find your strengths. Accept them. Use them. Don’t try to reinvent yourself into someone else. It will be disingenuous; it won’t work.

In teaching, I’ve already accepted the parts of me that were previously considered unacademic, and it seems to have worked out. When I get into class, I draw upon my reservoir of humor and sentimentality, and being me has worked. I’ve mostly ignored the pedagogical programming from graduate school that tried to shape me into a factory-made professor, and that run-in with Anna seems to prove I made the right choice.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty. 

My friend Kris is a wonderful man, and not just because he always keeps his promises. He does much more. When the summer heat finally arrived, I asked him to help me install my window A/C unit. He said he was happy to help. In fact, he suggested coming over to get it done the next day. The next morning, he called me asking when I would like him to come over to help. Kris is an extraordinary friend.Image

After he’d assured me that the A/C unit was securely in place in my dining room window, I asked if he wanted to stay for lunch. He cooled down in front of the freezer and fan while waiting for the A/C to cool the room, and I prepared two salads, placing his closest to the now churning A/C unit. I love a good talker, and Kris possesses championship conservation skills. We talked about our plans for the day. We talked about our tendency to be attracted to difficult men. We talked about the books we were reading. We happened on the topic of biometrics, because I had read an article in Smithsonian magazine (a great read www.smithsonianmag.com). He was quick to offer more ideas and examples of biometrics in action. Have I mentioned that he’s smart, too?

Feeling sure I should offer him more than a salad for lunch and eager for our conversation to continue, I remembered I bought cherries at the Farmers Market. I jumped to wash and serve them. We began discussing whether or not life is, in fact, like a bowl of cherries, analyzing the simile in which a bowl of cherries signifies the easy sweetness of life. But a bowl of cherries is not so simple. I suggested that, like cherries, life always includes some sort of unpleasantness, the pits, naturally. Kris added that when people think about cherries, the pits are overlooked, most people are happy enough with the sweetness of the cherries that the pits aren’t even considered, or, once eliminated, they are quickly forgotten. Cherries aren’t always in season, either, signaling the need to accept that the happiness we want cannot be expected to be immediately available. Pleased with our insights, we continued, discussing interpretation more generally.

Then, we began eating the cherries. They were exquisite. We talked about their perfection—the cherries melting on the tongue, the pits just falling away. He observed, “These are the best cherries I’ve had, ever.” I agreed. We ate slowly; I went back into the kitchen to get the rest, dividing them equally between our two bowls.

He asked, “If this lunch we’re having—salads and cherries in a cool room on a hot summer Sunday were in a novel, how would students interpret it?”

A good question to ponder while eating the season’s most perfect cherries.

The variety of accurate interpretations, and the individuality inherent in them, has always intrigued me, which is one of the reasons why I so thoroughly enjoy my work as an English professor. How might this scene between my friend Kris and I be interpreted? A student could begin by noting the balance of opposites—heat and cold, in this case. The interior coolness, the cold salad and washed cherries creating an oasis in the midst of summer heat. Another student might discuss the shared pleasure derived from the fruit, symbolizing perhaps a harmonious relationship between equals. Another could note the post modern tendency to address the multiplicity of possible interpretations. And they’d all be right.

For me, the appeal of analysis rests in the excessive attention given to the small details that comprise life. We must capture the moment, inspect it, and turn it over in our mind like a fine sculpture, noting the nuances, attempting to know what it could mean. Interpretation allows us to linger in moments we wish we could stay in forever.

I went back to the Farmers Market the following Sunday, but the cherries were gone.