It’s been a long time since I’ve last posted, but I have been writing–a lot. Over the past few months I presented a conference paper that I was asked to turn around immediately into an article (done as requested), wrote an academic book review, and written a piece of local history for the Bolton Hill Bulletin, my neighborhood newsletter (which I’m now co-editing).
I also witnessed, finally, the publication of an essay based on the blog posts I wrote last April and May in the weeks after the death of Freddie Gray around the corner from my house. I’m especially proud of this piece, “The Accidental Activist,” because it was solicited by The Concord Saunterer, a journal devoted to the study of Henry David Thoreau. I don’t study Thoreau—in fact, I engaged in a somewhat perverse resistance to Walden throughout my teens and twenties—so to be invited to comment on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” in light of the events in Baltimore was gratifying, to say the least. (I also used the occasion to pay some penance for my earlier misdirected hostility toward Walden.)
And of course, I’ve been doing lots of other writing since returning to teaching after my year-long sabbatical. Handouts, emails, Tweets (see right), comments on student papers, lecture notes, committee reports and proposals: this is the kind of writing that sucks dry, drop by precious drop, anything that might have collected at the bottom of the creative well.
So it’s been hard to write here on the blog. None of this is a surprise, but it’s no less deflating.
But I have taken a cue from an assignment I developed for my first-year students this semester, and which, on a lark, I decided to do alongside them. The assignment is called “Your Book of Zen.” It’s inspired by the “moment of zen” with which Jon Stewart ended each episode of the Daily Show. All students need to do is to keep a bound journal and at the end of each day, briefly write about a “moment of zen” they experienced that day.
The moment of zen might be a moment of hilarity or intense irony, as it so often was on Stewart’s show, or simply a moment of balance. It might even be a moment of realization, an epiphany.
You might wonder why I have incorporated this assignment into a Gen Ed class called Understanding Literature, which, as its title implies, promises nothing but boredom. In it, students toil away learning the ins and outs of terms they thought they already knew “from high school,” as they like to say: metaphor, sonnet, symbol, synecdoche.
The scope and stated goals for the course already make it a tough sell. And the millenials I’m teaching, to tell the truth, make it harder. While they are very caring, and earnest, and kind, they are simply not very creative or prone to risk themselves, either psychologically or intellectually. Preserving their own safety, as so many have been talking about lately, is their modus operandi.
I am just as frustrated as any frustrated Gen Xer at the current state of things. But rather than throw triggers in their faces, or tell them to suck it up because life is hard, nasty, brutish, and short (and then you die), I wondered if there might be ways to lure millenials out of those “safe spaces” that have been built around them all their lives, to make risk-taking appealing rather than scary, something they might willingly choose to do, even want to do. I wondered if they would they risk their safety to experience the thrill of something new? To experience unexpected joy?
It seems to me that only by taking these sorts of risks can one actually understand literature. For that is what writers themselves do, and want their readers to understand: risk-taking. They risk their language, their emotions, their intellect: they flay themselves open and call upon the vultures to feed, and the next day, they do it all over again, all in the service of that moment of enlightenment, of realization, of coming-into-being, of zen.
(I am pretty sure I am totally misapplying the actual concept of zen here, but I hope you get what I mean.)
Maybe if they can see the zen in their own lives, my thinking goes, they’ll be able to see it in someone else’s writing or art. But mostly, I would just like for them to feel it for themselves. One of my favorite quotes from Walden, now that I’ve actually learned to appreciate it, is where Thoreau says he went to the woods because he “wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life.” I want them to taste that marrow and savor it.
So far, we have only been keeping our zen journals for a couple of weeks. Most of the students still seem pretty baffled by the whole idea. But some, I can see through my skimming of their entries, are starting to get it. A few of the more well-adjusted, mature students are really seeming to enjoy it.
Initially, I, too, was a bit baffled. Students asked me what to write if they did not have a moment of zen on a particular day (millennials love rules) and I just told them to write, “No zen.” I wrote that myself a couple of times in the first week. But we have discovered together that if you give yourself enough time to think, and actually notice what you are doing during the day, it’s not hard to find a moment of zen every day. It’s a good feeling to have.
If you pray regularly, meditate, or already keep a journal, I’m probably not telling you anything new. Indeed, my Book of Zen assignment is a stripped down and secularized version of the five-step reflection process developed by Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits and namesake of my university: the examen.
The beauty of the Book of Zen is that it really only takes about a minute or two—literally—every day. In only a few weeks, I now find it one or two of the best minutes of my day. It is so good to end the day knowing 1) that something cool did in fact happen, and 2) that I actually wrote something.
Perhaps it’s ok that I’ve let long-form blogging slip these days. I decided to set aside a couple of hours this morning to write this entry, just to keep a foot in the door here, but I do so in part because I know I will not be able to devote a couple of hours to the blog for the next few months. In the meantime, I may post a few Book of Zen entries.
For instance, as I put this post together, I watched the sun gradually illuminate the stand of trees outside our little house in West Virginia, against a startling blue sky that only appears in wintry places. Deciding to write this post instead of getting right to work gave me a chance to see it. That’s my moment of zen for today. I already know it.