Every now and then I get the urge to change things around. With that in mind, Just Joywriting is growing (hopefully), and there will be quite a few new features that I am really excited to share. One of the things I’m really excited about is getting linked into Bloglovin’. You can follow me there or on Twitter to receive updates. In the meantime, bear with me while I update and improve.
A festival is, by definition, one of two things: an organized series of acts and performances or a period of time designated for celebration. Both definitions have their places, appropriate times dictated to us by society for each purpose. But sometimes they overlap; sometimes festivals are series of performances that inspire celebration and frivolity.
This summer has seen the term festival bandied about like no other, mostly as it relates to music. Beginning in June with Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee, we see the emergence of peasant skirts, straw fedoras, Ray Bans, and TOMS in all conditions of distress. The summer abounds with similar melodious celebrations, albeit on smaller scales, and while a large portion of the population scoffs at such things, not having the time (but masking the inclination) to participate, we would all do well to take note of what these festivals can teach us.
AmericanaramA is one such event, a sort of microcosm of what Bonnaroo seems to be. This particular festival seeks to bring together those beacons of uniquely American music in an effort to foster appreciation and celebrate art that belongs specifically to us. This year’s performers included Bob Dylan, Wilco, My Morning Jacket, and Bob Weir, a founding member of The Grateful Dead. While it’s interesting to note that these bands span generations, what is perhaps more important to note is how the audience members, who also span generations, interact with each other during each performance.
Audiences at concerts like these are generally composed of a conglomerate of the populace. They scowl and gyrate simultaneously in a way that suggests they want to be both seen and ignored. Wardrobe selection ranges from concert tshirts purchased at actual concerts to tshirts purchased at popular stores in the local shopping malls. The older folks watch the younger folks, comment on their tattoos, deride their life choices, and critique their politics. The younger folks watch the older folks, comment on their politics, joke about the late hour being past their bedtimes, and wonder whether they will eventually become the people they see in front of them. Then the music starts.
It’s important to note here that a music festival is not for the faint of heart. It’s longer than an average concert, and the venues aren’t usually as cushy. But when the music starts, none of that seems to matter. Through six hours of music young and old alike become involved, whether they like it or not, in an art that is transformative and transporting. Through experiencing the music together each generation is allowed temporary access to its antithesis, and for the few brief hours that are designated for the festival, everyone becomes part of the same collective.
By the end of the festival, an entire audience has a fuller understanding of itself and the world outside the festival gates. That’s the goal anyway. Bob Dylan comes back out for his encore and sings “Blowin’ in The Wind,” and the old folks shake their heads at the young ones who have laid down on their dusty quilts and fallen asleep, smiling at the knowledge that they do, in fact, “still got it.”
Most of us respond well to limits. For some of us, limits offer a comfort zone, a soft spot within which to perform the functions of living. Others of us like limits just for the sake of being able to push them. They give us something outside of which to operate. Either way, humankind has established and adapted to a set of boundaries complete with a system of reward and punishment, and with only an occasional rejection, we all tacitly agree to it.
We begin the institution of our system early in life. We learn that good behavior gets a gold star, while bad behavior gets a note home to the parents. But sometimes the system doesn’t make sense. Sometimes the system doesn’t translate well across the process of aging. These are the moments when adulthood becomes questionable, and we find ourselves feeling like the butt of a cosmic joke.
In elementary school, children receive recess or playtime when they’re well-behaved. I can’t help wondering why we reserve the luxury of recess for children. It seems rather cruel, does it not, to introduce our young people to routines like recess and naptime only to yank them away upon initiation to adulthood. Why is it that only children are allowed their playgrounds? As adults, we are forced into the world with no hope for recess and, for most of us, no clue what we would do with one if we had it. As children we are allowed a certain amount of time each day to get “it” out of our systems. We have our favorite equipment, our favorite games, our favorite playmates. We have a safe place to work out our aggression, a soft patch of mulch on which to land when the going gets tough and the tough fall down. But the older we get, the less entitled to this break we become. Why is it that we feel the need, as adults, to strip ourselves of the luxury of recess at a time when it seems the most relevant?
I suppose the argument might be made that the world is an adult’s playground. We are rewarded when we follow the rules, complete the assignments, and we’re punished with pay cuts when we don’t. We have our favorite vacation spots, our favorite hobbies, our favorite people. But if that’s true, and the world really is our playground, then Life becomes the bully who pushes us down the slide or pantses us while we’re swinging from the monkey bars. Suddenly, in that moment, we realize that there is no soft patch of mulch, and the best we can hope for is that the swings don’t have puddles underneath them. Somehow, by accepting the possibility of reward, we create a concept of recess that is more to be feared than relished. Perhaps this is why so many of us are willing to relinquish the privilege altogether.
It’s easy to get caught up in the way Life mistreats us. It’s easy to succumb to our role as Life’s plaything and do everything in our power to avoid it, but sometimes, just when we feel like giving up, like maybe spending recess in the library might be the better alternative, Life gets a timeout.
These timeouts are small, barely recognizable blips on the radar of ways we, the peons of the playground, have been wronged. But we don’t really want Life to start ignoring us altogether, so we take them when we can get them. Keep a count. Tally them up. Think of them as figurative moments of recess. There are more of them than we realize. They come when we’re standing in the checkout with one item and the person in front of us says, “Go ahead.” They come when we see “Just Married” painted on the back of a car driving down the Interstate and break out in a collective, “Aww.” They come when someone allows us to cross the street outside the crosswalk when it’s pouring rain. These tiny timeouts, while they do not constitute the same relief we might get from recess, serve to remind us that we are not in this alone, that Life gets to everyone at some point, that we need each other.
So maybe as adults we don’t have the luxury of a full-blown recess. Maybe we do allow Life the Bully too much power over our state of mind, and maybe we don’t have the time, space, or energy to indulge in taking care of ourselves the way we should. Maybe instead we get brief recessive moments, little reminders that we can’t play dodgeball alone.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the places we’ve gotten in the car and driven to: El Paso, the Grand Canyon, Richmond, New York, D.C., Orange Beach, Virginia Beach. I have a great appreciation for road trips, particularly ours. It was at this time last year that we began our weekly trips from Richmond to Nashville, getting the house ready to settle into. The thing about road trips is they force you into such close proximity that animosity cannot sustain itself. We argue, we bicker, we sulk. Then we get over it. Because not getting over it means hours of no noise but road noise, which is stupifying in its consistency. The only available alternative is to move forward both metaphorically and physically.
Captivating road trip conversation is yet another reason to go in the first place. When we run out of things to talk about, the trip will inevitably provide a topic of conversation. For example, halfway through Texas I had no clue what else to say. I felt like I’d told you everything about myself that you’d care about, and my mind frantically mined itself for something clever to say. That’s when we passed the windmills, remember? They are fodder for conversation in and of themselves, especially at night, their insufferable consistency and solemnity offering a bleak support for the harsh solitude that is central Texas. I miss those conversations.
I want us to take road trips again. I want us to go places, just us two. And maybe the dogs. I want to find new places and see new things, even horrible ones, with you. I want to create with you the stories we’ll tell for the rest of our lives. In order to do that, though, you have to keep with me. You cannot abandon me to myself and expect me to create the most positive definition of my life, of our life. You can’t leave me to my own devices because they are faulty and cheaply made, the only tools that can come from a factory of anxiety and depression. I cannot tell a good story by myself. So what I’m asking you, the case I’m pleading, is that you never disappear from me.
Never take yourself away from me because I can’t understand distance. In the same way I have no concept of distance measurement, so, too, emotional distance holds no inherent definition for me. I cannot be distanced from you without anxious fatigue. I need you with me, or I am not myself, and my story becomes tangled in all the things I never was and all the things I’ll never be. You are me as much as I am.
Please don’t disappear from me.
For the most part, life as we know it is not immutable. It is constantly in flux: seasons change, fashion changes, culture changes. People change. These changes take place over time; usually they are not abrupt. The old fades. Suddenly we realize the leaves are a different color. We are wearing different pants, different shoes now (or maybe we aren’t–everyone else is). Our favorite television shows are being shown in syndicate on channels like TVLand or NickatNite. Technology, however, changes right before our eyes. The only constant thing about it is that it’s constantly changing. And we accept these changes as unavoidable, in the way that tax season or natural disasters are unavoidable.
My students are always teaching me things. Thanks to them I know how to circumvent dorm monitors and where to buy the best tacos at 2 am. The educational exchange never ceases to amaze me, particularly with regard to their fascination with technology. Every backpack holds a laptop, every palm of every hand a cell phone. Excuse me, smartphone. These gadgets have been parts of their lives forever. They’ve never known a world without them, and they never will. Changing technology is their norm; they can chronicle the timeline of their lives with old cell phones, batteries long since dead, chargers long since lost.
When it comes to technology, age discrepancy becomes glaringly obvious. There are those completely resistant to change, those who embrace change with some measure of hesitation, and those for whom change is the only way the world works. My students are of the last ilk. They will continue to upgrade those smartphones until they themselves become irrelevant. I am of the middle kind: I appreciate change, but I’m beginning to feel technology-induced exhaustion at the prospect of yet another software update. Technology has a way of making me feel obsolete. Sitting in Starbucks on campus I overheard a conversation: two guys discussing whether or not it is better to rebuild an old computer or purchase a new one. “My processor is old, outdated,” one of them said. “I would replace it if I could.” I discreetly turned to look at them. They were not old. They were not young either. They were somewhere in the middle, both wearing sport coats with patches on the elbows. Professors, I thought. Then I wondered: were they talking about the processors in their computers, or were they talking about themselves?
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. There. I said it. I told myself this was not my battle, that I should remain an casual observer rather than a participant. But the debate rages on, and I can’t help myself.
In what I assume (in my limited knowledge of the publishing world) to be true publishing style, the book has been re-released with a new cover, informing those of us who might not have been aware before that this is, indeed, an anniversary edition. No problems so far.
Critics, teachers, readers, and writers have latched onto the cover with steely fervor, berating it as misleading, confusing, and contradictory. Readers, they fear, will think The Bell Jar is nothing but chick lit, a “light and fluffy read.” The cover gives the wrong impression, they say. The book has nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with angst. It is an offense to Plath as an author and an offense to The Bell Jar as a literary work.
I see the merit of these arguments. However, I think we’re all being nearsighted. We are missing the point.
Shouldn’t we instead be focusing on the fact that after fifty years readers still find The Bell Jar hauntingly relevant, that despite the social changes that have occurred readers still find something with which they identify? There’s something to be said for the fortitude of such a book, published first under a pseudonym. Instead of focusing on the book’s cover, can we instead give readers the benefit of the doubt? Can we allow the unknowing to make the glorious mistake of stumbling accidentally, if that is possible, onto a work from which they might otherwise have shied away? Critics of the cover seem to be under the impression that readers today are not discerning enough to know what The Bell Jar is, that readers today cannot read the blurb on the back of the book (or inside the front cover flap) and tell that Plath’s work is not a sip-on-a-soda-and-read time killer.
I find it odd that in a culture that so values the don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover mantra for every other aspect of life we so willingly embrace that judgement when it comes to actual books. There is a lot to be said for a cover, yes. And generally speaking it is, perhaps, the first thing to which we are drawn. That, however, does not form the only basis on which we choose what we read. It does not negate the reader’s ability to distinguish content from presentation.
I say that to say this: given that Plath’s novel has withstood fifty years of readership and criticism, it is possible that we are allowing the cover too much importance. For some the cover will never be right; certain people will always be finding fault. And while the cover is a visual representation of the novel, it is not the novel itself. The Bell Jar can and will speak for itself, whether it is accidentally or deliberately read.
Most of us begin our adult lives with some vague optimism about the future. Even if things aren’t ideal in the beginning, we reason, surely the harder we work the better life will be. Growing up we all harbor some deep-seated hope that our jobs, whatever they may be, will in some way influence the world for good. We are told to dream–dream big, dream often, don’t stop–and we begin to believe in ourselves.
The truth is that most of us, upon being launched into adulthood, become satisfied with jobs that pay the bills. World changing? Perhaps not. Life-altering? Yeah, potentially. We trudge through each day, each week, paying the bills and wondering what all that dreaming was for. But a lucky few are able to carve out more than that for themselves. For some of us, reality and occupation are not combatants. Rather they coexist, and we are able to have one without falling prey to the other.
Arguably, no one ever goes into teaching for the money. Education is seldom, if ever, championed as a lucrative career choice. But I would argue that those of us who have chosen this profession have duped the rest of the world. Ours is a secret so delicious it must be told.
Every day I go into a classroom where I sit with my books. Some of these books have been with me for awhile, since I was a student myself. They are worn; they are tattered and coffee-stained. They are old friends, keepers of solace. I go into a classroom with my books, and there are students there waiting for me, waiting for me to tell them what’s in the books. But instead of dryly delivering information for them to file away and regurgitate later, we have conversations. We talk about theme and plot and symbolism and all the things that make my books tick. And my students begin to know what they’re doing. When my day is finished, I find myself sitting at a desk trying to figure out when the actual work is going to begin.
Being a teacher is like being on the inside of a joke. The powers-that-be couldn’t possibly know what I do for my paycheck. Of course they don’t; if they knew how much fun I was having they probably wouldn’t let me do it anymore. I don’t mean to suggest that being a teacher is not without its problems. Anyone who has ever done it or tried to do it before will tell you that it’s tough. The grading and the grade-grubbing and the constant reminders that our work will never be done are, at times, maddening. Then payday roles around, and for one brief moment we all feel like the joke’s on us.
But at the end of the day it is my job, it is my occupation, to go into a classroom and discuss “Jabberwocky.” It is my job to watch my students develop confidence in themselves, my job to watch them come to appreciate and love the very same books that have meant so much to me, my job to help them find their own voice and figure out what to say and how to write with it. And while no job is without its problems, it’s not a bad way to earn a living.