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Ars Obligatio

November 23, 2009

I am pleased to have taken on
so many obligations–in my life
most curious elements accumulated:
gentle ghosts which undid me,
an insistent mineral labor,
an inexplicable wind which ruffled me,
the stab of some wounding kisses, the hard reality
of my brothers,
my insistent need to be always watchful,
my impulse to be myself, only myself
in the weakness of self-pleasuring.
That is why–water on stone–my life was always
singing its way between joy and obligation.

“Sumario” by Pablo Neruda (trans. by Alastair Reid)

I think of this poem often. There’s something in the wonderful rhythm of words, the uncomplicated wisdom of the message, which causes this poem to echo in my memory. I like this poem in the original Spanish more because translation causes the lyrical intensity of the poem to be lost, and to be honest Reid is not one of my favorite translators. (Though his are the most commonly found.) Since I first read Edgar Allen Poe’s  “Annabelle Lee” in Miss Adams 7th grade English class, I’ve read a lot of poems; some of them stick. Most of them don’t. This and another Neruda poem, “Birth”  – both from the 1975 collection Fully Empowered – repeat in my mind like favorite songs. When I think of this poem, the last word –obligation – echoes in my ears.

Often I think of my life in terms of my obligations – not only the things I have to do and the people I owe debts of gratitude, loyalty, love, and (sometimes) money – but in terms of the other things I take on as a result of being a writer. My stories and the stories of others. The memories of people who would be otherwise forgotten despite the fact that they should not be.  One of the prerequisites for being a writer, besides the anti-social compulsion to sit at a table and write for hours on end, is the ability to notice details. Poets are especially cursed in this regard, because after a while, poets begin to break everything down to image, sound, and line. Nothing and no one is safe. I write about my family and my friends as much as I write about the people I find sitting in bars; and I write with the same sense of urgency and honesty and the same disregard for their feelings. This is one of the more unforgivable traits of writers, I guess. We sacrifice everything for one more word, one more line, one more poem, one more story. My wife loves and hates this; more than once she’s told me she loves that I write about her but that sometimes my honesty is a bit … well… embarrassing. But she also understands that it’s part of the process and she likes what I do – at least most of the time – and while she would PREFER me to change, she’d never come out and ASK me to.

Obligation – being a word geek, one of the things I like to think about are word roots; when I talk about word roots in class, my students are usually confounded because public schools don’t teach silly things like that anymore. (It’s not on the standardized test.) Our word obligation comes from the Latin obligationem (nom. obligatio), which means literally “a binding.” When I take on an obligation – or one is dumped on top of me – these are my contextual cues. This is how I think about obligation. Not only what I owe, but how I am bound to certain people, places, ideas.

One of my big obligations is soon coming to an end. I am in the process of finishing up my last semester at Arizona State University, and my wife and I will be pulling up stakes and moving to Mt. Carroll, Illinois, where she will start as the new General Manager for Timberlake Playhouse. It’s a great opportunity for her, and a way out for me. I’ve been looking for a way out for the better part of a year now. Lately, when I talk about teaching or education or the politics of the grand academic machinations, I rant. I rant a lot. I’m not ashamed or apologetic because I rant better than most people and I always have a point in spite of what some of my more happy-go-lucky “colleauges” think. I won’t go into all the things I’ve ranted about because chances are, if you’re reading this, you know them already. If you’re unfamiliar, read back through the blog and get caught up.

It’s okay; we’ll wait for you.

Ok? Ok.

When I got into teaching, I told myself that if I ever got too burned out  I would quit. Teaching is a job that requires as much passion as it does a sadomasochistic personality. I’ve known some fantastic teachers and all of them have one thing in common: in spite of everything, they love being in the classroom. Maybe not all the time. But most of the time. And they’re able to communicate that love through the material so that students notice – and sometimes, they start to feel it, too. I’ve been lucky to teach and see students dramatically improve in their writing and thinking skills. When that happened, mostly it was a result of many factors – but my love and my passion for the material was a molecule-sized part of the mix.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that every teacher gets burned out. You’re thinking that it’s part of the job. That it’s part of every job. I will grant that you have a point. You will say that plenty of teachers come through on the other side of burn out and are still effective. That’s true, too.  So let me explain a little more.

I spent most of my 20’s screwing around, so I’ve been spending my 30’s trying to make up for my mistakes. Granted, this is probably impossible. But I felt some obligation to certain folks who, in spite of my behavior, chose to believe in me and give me a chance; these were people I felt I owed something to, and who I didn’t want to disappoint. I won’t list names since most of them probably know who they are; but the list includes family, friends, and a few teachers whose direction and advice has been fundamental to me.

When I started teaching, I saw my chance to do something  socially redeemable that would leave me time and space to write. My problem with holding down a job  in the past was that in the struggle between my obligation to art and my obligation to survival, art always won out. Poetry beat out relationships, jobs, and the bits of respect I’ve managed to garner from various co-workers and acquaintances. Rent and utility payments, student loans, and my credit rating have all been sacrificed as a result of this same obligation.  And there IS an obligation tied to poetry – it’s the worst kind – because it’s also the least forgiving. A friend of mine recently complained that poetry left him; I replied that people leave poetry, not the other way around. I probably came off harsh, which wasn’t my intent; writers write because they have to. If people don’t have the itch, then I suspect they’re probably happier for it. With teaching, I was able to have a job I could claim and still carve out space to do what was most important; I didn’t have to choose one over the other.

But the teaching is taking more and more, and the writing is demanding more and more. I suppose if there were more of me to go around, this wouldn’t be a big deal; but the truth is, I have a limited amount of energy, and given the choice of which obligation is more important, I don’t see it as a choice. The writing has always been more important. But I also realize that teaching carries its own obligations that can’t simply be dismissed. It’s not the students’ fault that higher education is a damn misdirected mess. There’s still work to be done for teachers who have the passion and the ability to balance their obligations – or to go full force into teaching. I’ve been feeling for a while now that I’m doing more harm than good, and I refuse to be one more burned out college instructor who was just wouldn’t leave. Teaching may well be a noble endeavor — but it is not my endeavor.  And I hope that the people whose obligations I’m letting go will understand – but if you don’t, I doubt either of us will lose any real sleep over it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    November 23, 2009 5:53 pm


    It’s awesome what you say here, especially about obligation– and about teaching, passion, and burnout. Congratulations to you and Melissa at the beginning of this new journey. I’m especially looking forward to following the continued evolution of your writing.

    Peace and best to you both,


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