“Slots Ordained” is a convergence of a number of different forces in my life–work, kids, art, what I was reading, the holidays. I felt as if they were all pieces of a larger puzzle, but I couldn’t figure out how they fit together until I started writing.
It occurred to me some time ago that I might be lost. However, with all the necessary emergencies in life, there was no time to stop and figure it out. I’ll think about it when life slows down, I promised myself. In the meantime there was laundry, lunches, dentist appointments, digital citizenship curriculum planning, toilets to clean, and myriad other minute details that gobble time from the day. I only have so much time and energy. If I didn’t have my routines and lists, I’d never get it all done.
Of course, the problem with routines–indeed, with life–is things change. This year Marisa entered middle school, thus altering the morning schedule, a wind of change that produced ripple effects throughout the family. Sure, she’s old enough to borrow my shoes and go to dances. But could she get herself up, fed, and on the bus? I didn’t think so. After all, how old did that make me? So I gave up writing before work. I’ll carve out another time in the day to write, I assured myself. If God meant for me to be a writer, if I wanted it bad enough, I’d find time to write, right? It didn’t happen. Had I mistaken the routine of writing for being a writer? Could I have been lost longer than I thought?
Then again, it may be the changing weather patterns at work that have blown me off course. It’s been a stressful year as a public school librarian in the state of Michigan. Public school employees are failing, over-paid, lazy, and haven’t taken our share of the economic hit–or so they say in the legislature. With less and less funding, librarians are being cut all across the state. The need to prove myself over and over makes it impossible to relax and enjoy working with kids and teachers. There is so much weight placed on every little thing we do that it is hard to try new things. And yet, and yet… We must. The world is changing faster than ever. Information not only doubles, but quadruples in record time. Thanks to personal technology like smart phones and ipads, more and more of our lives–and mistakes–are played out on a world-wide scale. This past fall I was asked to design and teach a Digital Citizenship class. I’ve been agonizing ever since. The more I research, the more I issues I find that are crucial for our children to learn. How do I narrow down? Online etiquette, safety and security, legal issues including copyright, digital footprints, the consequences of our 24/7 connectedness–even the rewiring of our brains. How do I teach the unknown and uncomfortable when my job depends on being able to show I have improved student test scores? As a librarian, I feel caught like a fish in a net–or would that be phish and internet? Is this where I am being called to spend the time and energy allotted to me? I can’t do it all and do it all well.
Christmas break came and life didn’t slow down in any noticeable way. I don’t know why I still hold the delusion that it will. Parties and presents went together with procrastination. I obsessed about what to make, what to bring, what to eat and what to buy. The only thing I did really well was sleep in–which, I suppose, is form of procrastination as well. With only a week to go, the debate over what to get our daughters for Christmas went into high gear. Both Marisa and Shanna had produced a list of ten items or so, including simple things like headbands and gel pens as well as the expensive ipods and ipads. Did we want to encourage more sitting and staring at a screen? But more technology was the way the world was going. Would it help them in school? Or would it be another time suck? “It’s expensive” warred with “But next year my pay is being cut, so maybe we should get them an ipad while we can still afford it.” The arguments swirled, and I wished for a crystal ball to show the course of each action.
On the third day of vacation, I sat down at my desk to check my email. The kids were quiet upstairs in their bedrooms, and I would’ve been worried when they were younger. Now I just seized the moment. Desensitization at its finest. Amid the junk emails from various stores, Peninsula Writers invited me to join the January Art a Day Challenge. Each person would create art in some shape and form each day, and then report on said art through email as part of the google group. Technology and art, at one point strange bedfellows, but maybe not so much anymore. I wanted to see myself as an artist, like my mother, but Lord! Who had time to do that as well as work? And January was going to be exceptionally crazy. Along with the Digital Citizenship lesson planning I already anguished over, play rehearsals would start, and the school board would announce their decision about the re-configuration. We all knew it was coming. It hung over our heads, a building sized chopping block. Changes in state funding mandated full-day kindergarten. That meant changes for us in the middle school. Whether the board decided on two 5-8 buildings, or one 5th/6th and one 7th/8th, it meant more change. And even though I’d probably stay at Lakeshore Middle School, I’d be losing friends. Friends are the people who help define home, who know who I am, who help me know who I am. No wonder I have a hard time letting people go.
A thud from upstairs, followed by “Mom! Marisa won’t let me have a turn on the computer!” spelled an end to reflection time. I clicked Join. The challenge would make me write or paint. And I’d tell Greg we should get the girls ipads for Christmas. Maybe then they’d stop fighting over the computer.
At the start of break, I brought home Stanley Fish’s book, How to write a sentence and how to read one, in a sneaky effort to cross off two of the things on my “To Do” list–write and read. I’m definitely an optimistic list maker. Of course, as I get older I realize optimistic and list-maker might be an oxymoron. Putting more things on a list than I can ever accomplish defeats the purpose of list making, which is to help me feel like I am productive. I figured reading a writing book could count as writing–without actually having to clear my mind enough to write.
The book starts with the author explaining that it is not words, but sentences that are the “nitty-gritty material of the medium” when it comes to writing. “Just piling up words,” Stanley explained, “won’t do much of anything until something else has been added.” On the second page, Stanley quotes from the novel Enderby Outside by Anthony Burgess to explain the “something else.”
And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.
It is only when words are nestled into the places “ordained” for them that “they combine into a statement about the world, that is, into a meaning that one can contemplate, admire, reject, or refine”(p.2).
Stanley’s words spun and lifted me, spinning me around and upside down like an wayward breeze playing a kite. What was my ordained slot? I wanted my life to have meaning, or merit if you will, but everyone is only given so many minutes, and so much drive. So where should I focus my life? The rest of the day, my body went through my daily routines–cooking, cleaning, refereeing–while my mind spun looking for somewhere to perch. Who was I? Where was I going?
When next I picked up Stanley Fish’s book, he promised that sentences offered “nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world” (p. 7). Right about then, with the house in full disarray (as it often is by the weekend) and parties to prepare for, organization sounded good. Stanley told how his department chair, Hugh Kenner, had given him the advice to get the first sentence right, and everything else would follow. “He meant,” Stanley explained, “that if my first sentence were written with a full comprehension of the twists and turns in the journey it introduced (which would make it in effect the last sentence), following its lead would guide me to the right order of my arguments and examples” (p. 8). This let loose a flock of thoughts. If I wrote my life, what would my first sentence be? Where did I want to end? Could I start over? Write a different first sentence? Can one revise her whole life? If I had known all the twists and turns of my life, I might likely have refused to come out of my mother’s womb.
It appealed to me though: start off right and all the rest will fly from there. If I were to write about this–this what? Feeling of being lost? Whether I’m supposed to be a writer? The place of technology and art in my life–or in the world? Or maybe just life. If I were to write, where would I start?
Christmas break continued with all of its ordinary chaos, the new ipads adding a whole new meaning to the phrase, “some assembly required.” One evening the girls and I watched Jurassic Park. Shanna was up for it, but it took a little persuading for Marisa. As soon as I said I watched the movie when I was about her age, she was certain it’d be boring. (Apparently the magic age where kids go from thinking their parents are awesome to thinking their parents are lame is somewhere between 9 and 12.) However, both girls loved it. Shanna watched it again the next night, and both of them went around quoting various lines from the movie for the next several days. “Hold on to your butts.” That was Shanna, of course. “Hey, where’s the goat? SPLAT!” “The lawyer guy goes running and Dr. Grant says, ‘where is he going?’ and Ian says, ‘when you gotta go, you gotta go.'” And Marisa’s favorite, “At least if the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”
I enjoyed the brief moments of being “cool” again. But one particular scene kept flapping around in my head. The scene itself involved no dinosaurs or blood. Several adults sat chatting around the lunch table. Dr. Ian Malcolm complains that John Hammond, the owner of Jurassic Park, didn’t earn the scientific knowledge needed to create Jurassic Park. Therefore he doesn’t take responsibility for it.
John Hammond: I don’t think you’re giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody’s ever done before…
Dr. Ian Malcolm: Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Is this what we are doing with technology? So busy chasing the next big thing we don’t see the cliff in front of us? Is our society headed for a Fahrenheit 451 world, where our news comes in tweets or Facebook posts? Where the digital is more real than the real world?
The scene goes on and John applies to Dr. Alan Grant, a renowned paleontologist.
John Hammond: Dr. Grant. If there’s one person here who could appreciate what I’m trying to do…
Dr. Alan Grant: Well, the world has changed so radically, and we’re all running to catch up. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, but look: Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by sixty-five million years of evolution have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?
Those sentences joined the thoughts already winging around in my brain as the old year stumbled and skidded toward a close. Where was my ordained slot? My first sentence? What part should technology play in our lives? What were we running to catch up to? How could we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect in this new year, and in all the new years to come?
On my way to church with the kids that last Sunday of 2011, fretting about being late as usual, we saw a flock of birds. Like large black snowflakes, they swirled around in the air before landing in the small bare tree by the side of the road. “Look, look!” I cried to the girls, pointing out the window where, for a moment or two, the season had reversed, and the sapling grew heavily foliaged with living brown-n-black leaves. Then, just as suddenly as they had landed, the birds scattered in the snow-laden breeze, and the tree was once again bare. I wanted to paint it. Paint the birds circling, like me, looking for a place to perch. Paint birds foliaging the tree, creating a new season. Paint the birds flying away. But I didn’t have time. I didn’t dare because it might not turn out.
The new year dawned rather gray, and with it came the Art-a-day challenge. I worked for an hour or two (or maybe it was three or four–that’s what happens when I get the paints out) on several artist trading cards. A Stargazer lily, a rose, some poppies. I love trading cards. Only 2.5 by 3.5. No pressure. No commitment. Anyone can make a trading card; you don’t have to be an artist. When I logged on to the google group, I saw that my fellow art-a-dayers had been busy as well–a chord, the start of a collage, formatting a manuscript, and cooking an elegant dinner. The discussion came up about whether the dinner counted as art. What is art, after all? Could it be as simple as something created? That thought found a landing. Maybe I was an artist even if all I did was trading cards, or excellent meals, or not-so-good paintings of birds perched in a tree. And then another thought–Did that mean I was indeed a writer because I wrote and had a passion for that writing?
On the second day of the Challenge, Sue, one of the writers, mentioned she started her writing session with devotions. John 1:1. “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Having read Stanley Fish’s book, I thought about this verse in terms of a first sentence, in terms of its structure and the relationship between the words. The Word was with God and the Word WAS God. Doer-doing-done to. Did it take into account the end of the story? Yes. Even the word Beginning was capitalized and had no qualifier. It gave the reader the sense of unlimited time, everlasting, eternal. What if that were my first sentence? I remembered the scene from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury where Montag is trying to read a passage in the Bible but the speaker on the subway keeps interrupting. “Consider the lilies of the field. Denham’s Dentifrice. They toil not– Denham’s– Consider the lilies of the field, shut up, shut up.” Sometimes it is hard to hear our own thoughts amid all of life’s obligations. Montag tells Faber, an old professor, that he just wants someone to hear what he has to say. “And maybe if I talk long enough, it’ll make sense.” Maybe that’s what I’m looking for as well.
I’d love to say that all the twists and turns in my journey became clear to me at this point. But sometimes I write to find my way, to find out the end of the story. We can’t know what Jurassic Parks the future holds, but maybe we can work to teach each other to listen, to hold on to the things that are important. In the classic Fahrenheit 451, I find a few more clues. Faber tells Montag at one point, “It’s not the books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor families’ today.” Faber goes on to list the things that were once in books, things we need in order to be happy. “Number one, as I said, quality of information. Number two: leisure to digest it. And number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.” With all my list-making and routines, I put all the emphasis in my life on action. That’s how I got lost. Forward action without taking the time to search out quality information, without taking the time to talk and listen, learn and digest. That is why I write, why I paint.
In the end of Fahrenheit 451, after the city has been destroyed and Montag is walking back to find out if there is anyone left alive, he thinks about what he can offer and remembers a little of the book of Ecclesiastes. “To everything there is a season. Yes. A time to break down, and a time to build up. Yes. A time to keep silence and a time to speak.” I remember the birds, flying, and landing, seasons reversing, and then falling away, flying on to somewhere else. Maybe I am not as lost as I thought. I am just in a different season in my life. At some point, my kids will fly off to college, and maybe then I will have more time to focus on writing. Matthew 6:26: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” He holds me no matter where I fly, or where I perch.
In the last chapter of How to write a sentence, Stanley Fish acknowledges that mortality is a gift. Lives, like sentences, have a beginning, middle, and end. It is the inevitability of death that provides each moment of our lives with meaning. And that meaning is derived from our past and our future–a future with a terminal point (p. 54).
Words can be put into millions of different sentences and glow with meaning in those ordained slots. So can I. And since my first sentence was “It occurred to me some time ago that I might be lost,” then it flows from there that my last sentence will be, “But I haven’t forgotten my way home.”