The school year is coming to a rocky end. Usually, the students are calculating grade point averages now. Double-checking the university requirements. Strategically studying for the exams that will lift their grades just that little extra to put them over the acceptance line. But the government has been canceling exams, one by one, and moving dates around for the final grades to be set.

The trickiest thing for me is the requirement for us to hold classes – and for the students to attend – for nearly weeks after final grades have been turned in.

It takes “busy work” to a new level. I feel like I’m supposed to be Julie from The Love Boat – not that my students (or colleagues) have a clue who that is/was. My students are 18, 19, and 20. This is insulting to all of us. Bureaucrats plugging in random dates and expecting us to make sense of it. Justify our students’ time. Be entertaining enough to entice them to come to class. Remind them they have to or risk losing their diploma.

I am a good teacher. But a lousy cruise director. I am counting down the days with a fair amount of anxiety.

On social media, I keep reading the term post-pandemic being thrown around by some Americans. There is nothing here to really indicate that. I have a handful of my students in quarantine this week. Another local school has had another small cluster of cases. It’s worse in other parts of the country.

But more people than ever are conforming to the requirements for face masks on trains and buses. I’m wondering if people are hoping they’ll keep themselves safe enough through a summer vacation? Who knows, maybe feeling like the end of this is near makes people more willing to accept the restrictions?

I’m trying not to get ahead of myself. Not to speculate on the Indian variant that’s made its way here and to the UK. What any of this means for the future. We have the situation today. That’s all we can be sure of.

This fall I asked the students to write about what they’ve learned about themselves during this time. How they’d grown and what they did well. Maybe it is an exercise they should do again now that they are in this odd place with no clear view of the future.

As an adult, I like things to be predictable. I need them to be predictable. I like fences and guideposts: I set them up like those little guardrails at the bowling alley that you can set up to keep kids from losing their ball to the gutter and becoming demoralized. Keep trying. You’re getting better.

When I hit the wall this winter, I read about the difference between burn-out and demoralization. I hadn’t thought much before about the downside of a work ethic. Though now it seems obvious: the American Dream on such a tiny scale. A few years ago somehow it came up in class: “The American Dream”. And my students thought that it meant wanting to make a million dollars a game playing basketball for the NBA. I had them watch The Death of a Salesman. I am not sure any of them really understood the concept of legacy or capitalism’s “required” work ethic that Loman doesn’t really possess. Looks a lot like the NBA dream to them, I suppose. Hell, looks like that to me today.

There is a smart professor on YouTube who says that the play isn’t about the American Dream. But I disagree. It’s about Loman’s moral failure to achieve it. The play isn’t a critique of the Dream, it’s a tragedy: which is by definition a critique of a character’s morality.

Clearly, I miss teaching.

I wonder if my rarified understanding of the philosophical depths of The American Dream and demoralization of the working class is a footnote in the OED already. Whether the idea of doing meaningful work for a “respectable” everyday existence is archaic in and of itself. Replaced with the cult of talents and the lottery of fame?

If you do the right things, work hard, you’ll be rewarded is such a naive story. Maybe all those fairy tales really are closer to the truth than the psychological realism of the 1940s. Some ditz who talks to mice and who carelessly loses a precious shoe will always wind up living in a palace.

Is it possible to become demoralized if you don’t value the work you do for its own significance? You can become disappointed, bitch about fate and “fairness”. But demoralized? And if this is so: is my claiming to be demoralized a pat on my own back with the assumption that my work was meaningful?

I think this is why I’ve had an impulse to pull away from teaching. In the sense of pulling back from emotional or psychological investments in the teaching. (Not in the students.) I feel frustrated with all these turns-on-a-dime. Planning and replanning the practical application of the curriculum: online, offline, group work, 2 meters apart. How can I grade what they haven’t been taught? It feels uncomfortably close to sticking gold stars on their foreheads based on some psychic ability to know their potential – had they had a chance to learn. It feels both intensely personal and weirdly calculated. And all kinds of wrong.

How can it not be demoralizing for them?

I’ve always explained to students that my teaching philosophy in the arts is that I can help them explore their talents. But in reality, I am mainly giving them room to learn to use their own creativity in a way that allows them to learn how to jump through society’s hoops. “What’s the point of this?” “I don’t know. It’s a hoop. You’re going to have to jump through a lot of them.”

I don’t lie.

I’ve worked hard to be a good teacher. It wasn’t a career I chose, it was forced on me by the government here. I was qualified. I needed work. And I’ve been grateful. I embraced it – took extra education and really invested myself in 4 years of teaching and counseling education, alongside my doctorate. The administration stresses how important continued education is. To be a good teacher.

But while I was on partial sick leave, I was replaced with a young woman with no teaching certification, and my schedule was designed around hers. And things went fine.

So where is my meaningful work, now that the guardrails are down and the gutters in view?

It seems I keep circling back around to find myself stuck in the same me-sized, existential sinkhole. So I am here. In this now-space and the future is uncertain. Today what is meaningful? I’m going upstairs to paint. That’s going to have to be enough – hoop or no hoop, a gold star or not.

And then I’ll grade some papers.

the sudden quiet
when the air – the fan – is still
distant voices puncturing
the hum – an urban concert
indiscernible and good

I’ve been writing for a bit over a year now on the same kind of theme, or at least considering the same kind of question: what is a good life. And because – for me at least – an integral part of that question is: what is an ethical life.

I suppose I can split my life in two – my personal life, which is extraordinary insular, where I can be relatively hedonistic in my pursuits; and my livelihood, which is teaching and laden with ethical responsibilities.

There are days when I fantasize about not having to teach. Not to get away from the work exactly, but to spread myself out thinly over the days. To breathe easily. While the pandemic has been difficult in so many ways, it has also given me the opportunity to slow down. Listen. Can I listen to the birds with the same sustained interest that I listen to a student presentation? This is a kind of work, too. What do I earn from this?

My childhood was a cramped succession of dramas, of noise and movement. A montage of cigarettes and speed, cocaine and black eyes. Drama became a kind of addiction that I struggled with through my 20s. I walked that jagged edge of violence where you never know which side someone will fall on: wounded or… disappeared. And as soon as I write this down I think: no, I’m not being fair to everyone. And still, I censor myself. After censoring myself in the first place. I make excuses for other people.

Maybe no one should ever tell the whole truth? At least not for the sake of entertainment or to makes one’s self interesting like a spectacle at Coney Island. Though people do buy tickets.

When I was in high school I went to the county fair alone and bought a ticket to see one of the “freaks”, assuming it would be a mirror trick of some sort. A kind of theatrical presentation. It wasn’t. The “freak” was a person. I turned around immediately and threw up outside the tent.

No. That would make a good story. I didn’t throw up. I just wanted to. I felt a sense of shame that was too familiar. But weirdly, I felt a shared sense of shame. With the person in the tent. I couldn’t explain it then, and I can’t explain it now except to say I understand why the whales that are kept in tiny pools and mistreated at theme parks will give kisses to their trainers on cue.

I don’t want to choose revenge or forgiveness. I want a middle path here, too. It seems even my personal life isn’t really free of ethical concerns.

And my writing never will be.

So for now, I write about mundane things like lapwings and chaffinches. The vibrating silence of the Hardanger plateau where the snow still lies in July. How cold has a smell where the North Sea is untouched by the Gulf Stream, and the harbour in Stavanger can smell like watermelon.

There’s this to gain: being in the world and not in the past. For now.

Drama is a mode
of poetry – and distinct
from the lyric, so
how do we conflate the two
in the narratives we tell?

There is such a comfort in the quiet mornings. E. still asleep downstairs and Leonard curled up on the rug. The space heater blowing and now and then a blackbird call puncturing its white noise. A cup of good coffee and the feel of my keyboard’s small squares pushing back in a weirdly satisfying way. This cheap keyboard has only a few white letters intact: Z, X, Q and the Norwegian letters. This makes the act of typing feel intimate.

It is an odd way to leave a mark on the world. I seem to be preoccupied with this idea the past year: leaving a mark on the world. I think it’s an idea worth exploring. Yesterday while walking Leonard around the neighborhood, I was listening to a Hidden Brain podcast episode about “stuff”. About possessions and how we infuse them with emotions and then cling to them. He talked about how we even do it with possessions that don’t actually exist: we buy and cling to virtual objects in virtual spaces.

The host and the guest experts discussed why the rise of industrialization has given us the opportunity to indulge in our “stuff” habit. They talked about baby blankets and knick-knacks. But not about our children’s macaroni art on construction paper… or poetry. They didn’t talk about the “stuff” we create ourselves. I am wondering if it isn’t a very different impulse to cling to these things.

I am curious how the drive to create that is so strong in childhood in most of us, seems to abate with the years, until we hit – I don’t know – my age? I haven’t researched it, but what little I’ve incidentally read on the subject usually blames social restraints, shaming and capitalism’s focus on time-as-money. We get sorted out and the culture determines which of us are “good enough” to take an ostensibly creative space in the community. The rest of us, if we continue, apologize for our amateur efforts or keep them entirely hidden.

But I have no idea if this is actually true. I wonder if the impulse to create is nothing more than a way to subject the world to our will. To turn a bucket of sand into a castle, like magic. There is no need to “say” anything by doing so. It just is a tiny bit of the world, transformed by a specific human’s will.

I matter. I can change the world.

I’ve been dealing with the fact that I’ve become something of a cliche. I always have been, I suppose, but this is a new shape. This middle-age (which is past the middle of a life-span) craftsy space. A post-menopausal drive to regain some feeling of relevance by “making things”? Isn’t that what they say?

But I wonder if it isn’t that at all. I’ve never valued myself in terms of motherhood. What if it is really more related to a need to assert our independence (as small children do). Not as compensation, but as the liberation from all the weight that was put on us once our efforts began to be evaluated by a community in terms of “worth”?

I am still here. But for a limited time to come. Look how powerful I am. I can make a book. I’m unique. Just like everyone else.

I matter. I can change the world.

every cat knows
every box is meant to be
tried on and explored
scored and chewed on like deep thoughts
and scattered throughout the house