I chose to take a break from writing blog articles over the holidays, and it was good. I did think about it every once in awhile, but no blazing hot ideas popped into mind, so I was happy to let it lie. I’ve learned that by focusing on a new article every weekend, I am sometimes hyperfocused on the whole retirement thing, so I decided that the week off between Christmas and New Years would be a good time to rest my brain.
A colleague friend loaned me a book awhile ago that contains a passage that has stayed with me in its crystalizing accuracy, and I was reminded of this over the holidays. Riding With Rilke: Reflections on Mototcycles and Books by Ted Bishop is a memoir of the author’s journey from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to Austin, Texas. Bishop, a professor at the University of Alberta, made this journey on a Ducati motorcycle; the purpose of the trip was research on British writers at the Harry Ransom Center, humanities research library and museum of the University of Texas. Bringing books and the literary world together with a long motorcycling roadtrip made this book appealing to me, and I made some notes as I read. Here is one passage of note (p.112-113):
“I believe a book knows when you are ready for it. If you are not, you might as well forget about it. You can buy it, sit down with it, try to read it. If the book doesn’t think you’re ready it resists. It’s as if you’re trying to pry it open, to heave open a spring-loaded door, but it snaps shut the moment you slacken your effort even slightly. Sweaty, exhausted, your hair plastered to your forehead, you stagger away.
“You put it back on the shelf. The book may even lose itself, so that the next time you look for it — you’re certain you put it right there — it’s gone. You look where you left it; you know it’s in that clump of books you bought at such and such a time, or books on such and such a subject. You check the bookshelves in your office, even though you know you never moved it. You just want a quick quotation, or to check a passage that someone else has referred to. No luck. The book has disappeared itself. You curse. You might even threaten, out loud, standing there in your study, conscious of your ridiculousness should anyone hear. You come out or I’ll kick your colophon from here to next week. I know you’re there. I’ll rip your . . . No, you stop at the threat of physical damage; you know it would never believe you, or if it did it would be gone forever. You sidle out of the study, Okaaay, I’ll just go get the LIBRARY copy . . . You pause on the threshold, giving the shelves one last scan. Nothing. Your bluffs have been called.
“The library copy is of course out till the middle of next year (they know, they work together), and you manage without it.
“Then, when you’ve forgotten about it, when you didn’t even know you needed it, you glance up from your writing, not looking, just raising your eyes as you look for a phrase, and there it is. Right there. Within reaching distance. It may even have edged out to the edge of the shelf. It’s a bit scary. You know you looked there. You looked there first. Never mind. This has happened before. You are just grateful.
“You take it, it falls obligingly into your hand and flops open to the passage you didn’t even know you needed . . . Or you begin at the begining, and, absorbed, realize now how fine this is, seeing it in a way you never would have a year, two years, ago when you bought the book, before you had become ready in the way you are now.”
I know that was a long passage, dear readers, but it’s so true I just had to share it with you. Especially because that’s what happened to me during vacation.
One evening I picked up a book I’ve had for a number of years; I was actually sitting on the floor playing football with my dog when I looked to the side and there it was on the shelf, practically jumping into my lap. It was one of those little inspirational gift books: God on a Harley: A Spiritual Fable, by Joan Brady. It’s the story of a burned-out nurse who was unhappy with her life; God appears to her as a good-looking guy riding a sleek Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and he teaches her how to turn her life around and be the person she wants to be. It was the Harley that drew me to this book many years ago, as I was also drawn to the aforementioned title, and I stayed there on the floor and started to read it again. There were two passages that, upon this reading, hit home with me.
“For as long as I could remember, I defined myself by the work I do. Now when people asked, ‘What do you do?’ I wanted to have a better answer than ‘I’m a nurse.’ I’m more than a nurse, I must be. It was time to find out just what else I was.” (p.91)
I was a bit surprised that this jolted me; I have always tried to maintain that I am more than a teacher. But I think in recent months I haven’t remembered that. I have started to think of myself as a writer, (see The Pull to Write), but otherwise, I’ve had “teacher/teacher/teacher” in my head, and I think I’ve lost sight of the rest of myself.Keeping the whole me in mind will enable me to be open about what I want to move towards, instead of focusing on what I’m leaving behind.
The second passage:
“‘Ego lies at the root of all your problems. Remove it and you make room only for happiness …'” (p.93)
This one is hard to admit, but I had to be honest with myself. I have allowed my ego to fill my head, with thoughts like, After this year, no one else will . . . with the rest of the sentence being any number of things. But the truth is, I’m learning that those fill-in-the-blank details are not important in the big picture. It’s true that whoever takes over my job after me will not do what I do. I’m not the only good teacher in the world, and many others also have great and important things to teach. The person who comes after me will surely do things well that I have not done at all. And that’s OK — it’s as it should be. I have to let go.
So those are my two New Year’s Resolutions, and I already feel better. I’m still not totally comfortable with the not knowing of what will be next on my resume, but I am much more relaxed about the letting go. It will be OK.
Bishop, Ted. Riding With Rilke: Reflections on Mototcycles and Books. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005.
Brady, Joan. God on a Harley: A Spiritual Fable. New York: Pocket Books, 1995.