The Real Me

I am currently reading Happiness and the Good Life, by philosopher Mike W. Martin. This week, I was working on Chapter 4, “Authenticity.” As Martin notes, there is surely some connection between authenticity and happiness. It is important to us that the life we live is true to who we really are. The importance of authenticity is perhaps made most clear in its absence. Living a life that seems out of touch with who we really are is frustrating, constraining, and saddening. It’s like walking around in clothes that don’t fit. “Know thyself” was one of the pieces of advice carved into the Temple to Apollo at Delphi. “To thine ownself be true,” Polonius advises his son Laertes in Hamlet. (I’ll let some of the Shakespeare scholars out there discuss what we should make of the fact that this advice is given by Polonius.) So there are at least two challenges we have to face in order to live authentic lives: we need to figure out who we are, and we need to construct a life that aligns with our authentic self.

1. Knowing Oneself

What do we mean when we say talk about “who we really are”? How can I claim that the true me is out of step with how I’m actually living? Why shouldn’t my life as I actually live it have better claim on being the real me than some vision I might have of myself that isn’t being realized? Part of what might be at work here is that each of us comes equipped with a psyche abuzz with activity. We like to think we have a cohesive self, but we’re actually going about a dozen different directions at once. The search for the true self is partly a project of ordering and prioritizing all these different parts of us.

In Quadrophenia, the rock opera by the Who, the main character wrestles with this question. Jimmy is an adolescent trying to figure out who he his. He feels different versions of himself, or perhaps different parts of himself, crashing against each other within his psyche. He decides that he’s not just schizophrenic; he’s quadropenic. The second cut on the album, “The Real Me,” sets out what he’s facing.

Interestingly, a parallel dynamic was also at work in the band. All four members were strong, idiosyncratic performers. At their best, they fused these disparate elements into a cohesive whole. This is certainly at work in “The Real Me.” We get Townsend’s visceral power chords, Entwhistle’s amazing bass runs, Moon’s ferocious drumming, and Daltrey’s powerful vocal. This parallel dynamic is reflected in the cover art for the album, as the faces of the four band members are reflected in the mirrors of Jimmy’s mod scooter.

Thus, one way of thinking of the challenge of knowing ourselves is figuring out how we can pull as many strong parts of ourselves into a cohesive whole. And this might better be described as a project of construction, rather than a project of discovery. We put together the puzzle, trying to get as many pieces to fit as we can.

2. Living Authentically

One of the points that Martin makes in his book is that it’s not simply the case that authenticity is a guide to happiness. The relationship is more complex than that, he claims, since happiness can be a guide to authenticity. As we try on different masks, as we give different parts of ourselves more rein, we gain clues to our authentic self by the way in which our happiness is increased or frustrated.

A more unsettling possibility is that happiness and authenticity might pull apart. What should we do when our authentic self leads us along a path of chaos and unhappiness? Should we follow our true self, happiness be damned? Or should we say that authenticity is overrated and be willing to settle into a happier, less authentic life? Maybe these concepts are fuzzy enough that, without herculean effort we can convince ourselves that the chaotic path was not our true self anyway.

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Negative Emotions

To have a virtue of character, according to Aristotle (see Book II, Chapter 6 of his Nicomachean Ethics), is to have an ingrained tendency to feel emotions and desires appropriately to the circumstances. On Aristotle’s view, having these virtues contributes to living a good life. This idea raises questions when we consider emotions that we regard as negative. Are negative emotions ever appropriate? How do these negative emotions contribute to good lives? Let’s consider some specific examples.

 

A. Fear

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

We’ll start with fear, since the positive value of this negative emotion is easy to identify (and since it’s Halloween!). When we are faced with danger, fear is often appropriate. The value of fear is that it primes us for action. There are physiological components of fear that prepare our flight-or-fight response. Our heart rate increases. We get a shot of adrenalin. Our pupils dilate.

These physiological components perhaps help explain why we sometimes (for instance, on Halloween!) use fear as entertainment. We watch horror movies. We sneak up behind friends and scare them. The adrenalin rush that comes along with fear may help us make sense of these common practices. We may even develop a more sophisticated account of how the arts allow us to wrestle with difficult fears in a more controlled setting.

Although we can be paralyzed by fear, although we can feel fear inappropriately, fear is pretty clearly a valuable survival mechanism. In a world with dangers, we would not want to get rid of our fear responses completely. In the “Virtue and the Warrior Spirit” FYI class that I am currently teaching with Dr. Bahr, we see various authors (including Aristotle) argue that courage should not be equated with fearlessness. Rather, it is best understood as proper management of one’s fear.

 

B. Hatred

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net

Hatred is often presented as the opposite of love. If love is good, this would seem to make hatred bad and so something to be avoided. We can ratchet up this concern with hatred by considering a commandment to love, a moral obligation to love. This concern gets ratcheted up even more if we are supposed to love everyone, even our enemies. If we’re morally required to love everyone, can it ever be appropriate to hate anyone? What legitimate contribution might hatred make to the good life?’

Clearly, various strategies for answering with these questions are available. One could reject the commandment to love everyone. Loving one’s abusers simply sets one up for further abuse, it might be claimed. It might be noted that, although hatred is typically regarded as a negative emotion, it’s often an enjoyable emotion. We sometimes nurse our hatred. We relish our hatred-fueled thoughts of the gruesome things that might happen to the one we hate. Alternatively, one could reject the Aristotelian approach when it comes to hatred. Hatred is never appropriate and should always be replaced with love, it might be claimed. This replacement, this growth of love in our lives, will always make our lives better. Another possible strategy would be to say that love and hate can co-exist and that sometimes they should. Though it is always required to love others, it is sometimes appropriate to add some hatred to that love.

What do you think? Are there other possible ways of wrestling with these questions? Which approach do you favor?

 

C. Jealousy

Some see jealousy as connected with love.

jealousy

On this view, jealousy is an indicator of the strength of love. If someone feels no jealousy, we might wonder whether that person feels genuine love. Is it possible to feel deep, rich love without feeling jealousy? Or should we embrace a certain degree of jealousy as part of the heady brew of love?

Others question this connection between jealousy and love.

jealousy roche

On this view, if I am jealous that my loved one is made happy by someone else, I’m more focused on myself than on my loved one. Maybe there are related issues here about how selfless love should be, and whether our love is more tied up with selfishness than we would like to admit. Should we aim at ridding ourselves of this negative emotion as a way of deepening our love? Would our lives be better if jealousy never manifested itself in us? Would this be an indication that we had shed our insecurities, or would this be an indication that we had become too detached from those we profess to love?

Moral Victories

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A common claim that I’ve heard in various post-game interviews with NFL players and coaches is “There are no moral victories in the NFL.” (See here, or here, or here.) As someone who teaches moral philosophy and who is a football fan, this claim intrigues me. What does this claim mean, and is it true?

In one narrow sense, it’s obviously true. The NFL does not keep track of moral victories. There are no moral victory standings. There are no playoffs for the teams with the most moral victories. There is no Moral Victory Super Bowl.

What is a moral victory? The term “moral” is derived from the Latin word for character. Moral victories are often discussed when good character is displayed, even though in a losing cause. In a paradigmatic example from the first week of this NFL season, the Cleveland Browns fell behind early to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-3. They battled back in the second half, and ended up losing 30-27. After the game, Browns Coach Mike Pettine said, “There are no moral victories in this league, but I was proud of the resolve and the character that showed up.” What message is Pettine trying to send with this comment? He does express pride in the character of his team. He is complimenting his team for their willingness to keep battling, even when the game looked lost. This character trait is clearly a good one, not only in the context of sports, but in many contexts throughout life. Why not simply compliment his team and leave it at that? I take it that the worry here–the worry that leads him to add the “no moral victories” claim to his comments–is that he doesn’t want his team to be satisfied with putting forward a strong effort. His point seems to be that whatever pride is taken in a strong effort needs to be tempered by the fact that the team lost. He is guarding against complacency, against losing sight of the goal of victory.

We need to consider this goal of victory. In his poem, “Alumnus Football,” noted sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote:

For when the One Great Scorer comes

To mark against your name,

He writes–not that you won or lost–

But how you played the Game.

Is the “no moral victories” claim simply a rejection of Rice’s claim? Is the idea that the only thing that matters in the NFL is winning and losing, character be damned? This is certainly a danger with sports and games in general and with professional sports where millions of dollars are at stake more specifically. The drive to win can swamp the concern with character. Is Pettine saying that a moral victory, a display of good character, does not matter in the NFL? Is he saying that winning is the only thing that matters in the NFL? If this is all that is going on with this sort of rhetoric, I would have a hard time continuing to be an NFL fan.

A different interpretation of the “no moral victories” claim is available however. To start with, I agree with Aristotle that a crucial part of a good life for us is developing and exercising our capacities. (See Book I, Chapter 7 of his Nicomachean Ethics.) A major contribution that sports and games can make to our living a good life is that they can help us develop and exercise our capacities. We are fascinated by sports because of the peak human performances that they contain. We watch highlights from games in slow motion because we marvel at the physical feats on display. Sports have the capacity to develop and display good character along with physical excellence, however. Participating in sports can help us develop perseverance, teamwork, and a variety of other virtues. “Commitment to Excellence” is not just a Raider slogan; we engage in sports because they help us develop our excellences–excellences of body and of intellect and of character. If this is right, if developing human excellence is a central purpose of sports, then moral victories–those times when excellence of character is displayed in the course of a sporting event–certainly should be part of the NFL. Perhaps the claim that there are no moral victories in the NFL is simply a warped, misguided perspective on the ultimate purpose and value of sports.

Things are a bit more complicated, however. Even if we agree that a central purpose of sports is to help us develop our capacities, we need to consider how they do this. And one way they do this is by getting us to focus on a goal internal to the activity, the goal of winning. We set out an arbitrary list of rules. Those rules set out an arbitrary way of assigning points to various events in the game, such as touchdowns and field goals and safeties and extra points. Winning then gets defined in this arbitrary way by the rules of the game. By playing the game, the players commit themselves to this arbitrarily constructed goal, but doing this promotes the development of the skills and character traits that we might regard as the true goal of the activity. Imagine a coach who sees his role as encouraging his players to develop their capacities, including their character. Such a coach might have a team which has displayed a great deal of character in a losing cause. Such a coach might ask his team to stay focused on the (lesser and arbitrary) goal of victory in order to promote the continued development of their capacities. Perhaps the goal of developing the virtue of perseverance is well served by focusing on the goal of victory. Perhaps the claim that there are no moral victories in the NFL is one way of keeping players focused on the continued development of their capacities, which is the ultimate moral victory.

Discipline: The Good Life

Dear Outsiders–my last entry focused on the idea of self-discipline, and the price we pay for the privilege to WORK WITH WORDS in our daily lives. Lest we think that studies in the humanities is all work and no play, let’s shift gears today and affirm that while our chosen discipline entails a lot of struggles, we got into this gig in the first place in order to have…

FUN WITH WORDS!

Indeed, those who have adopted the humanities, the liberal arts–and reading and writing in particular–as disciplines have done so, largely, because we find them FUN. I shared the definition of “discipline” in the first blog this week, but we didn’t discuss the etymology. Remember, words are fun, so let’s take a look, courtesy of Dr. Google:

disciplineorigins

So there you have it–the Latin form focused on “instruction” and “knowledge,” but by the time the English got ahold of “disciplus,” they transformed it into discipline–the “mortification” or “scourging oneself” as in religious penance. Given what I outlined in my previous post–the self-torture we administer in order to WORK WITH WORDS, the English may have translated it correctly! Think of Reverend Dimmesdale–literally whipping the guilty weight off his shoulders at night with bloody straps while countless English students on any given night are figuratively “scourged” in their forced reading of the text! Of course, for many of us, such self-discipline (the reading of The Scarlet Letter, I mean) is not “work” or “torture,” but, dare I say, FUN?

In this sense we adhere to the final transformation of the word–we become “disciples.” Life-long learners. Followers of an extensive parade of teachers–in classrooms, in texts, in person, in mind, in spirit. And why hitch ourselves to such a train? Because it’s fun!

A few weeks ago I found myself in a cornfield outside of the north-central Nebraska town of Neligh, grooving with a wild mix of ranch kids, political activists, hippies and farmers, listening to Neil Young lay down some impressive reverb with Willie Nelson’s kid–guitar sounds the likes of which had probably not echoed in that cottonwood shelter belt in, well, forever. Young is one of my favorite performers, so I was digging it, of course–but even in that moment of pure joy, the English major emerged: I became a disciple, once again, of the words. When Neil sang an acoustic version of “Comes a Time”–a song of great personal significance to me–the tears poured forth. Then came his pump-organ rendition of “Mother Earth,” and the harmonica for “Heart of Gold.” Somber–self-searching moments. HARVEST THE HOPE CONCERTThen he plugged in and things got loud and funky as he played a series of numbers from his rollicking album Ragged Glory, a pre-grunge favorite of mine, before wrapping his short set with a call to environmental arms with “Who’s Gonna Stand Up (and save the earth)?”

Now that was FUN! And, deep. The context–those words, with that music, in that place–and the conversations engendered from that moment, the reflection, the ideas pulled forth from deep in that brainstem. Wordsworth had Tintern Abbey, where he proclaimed  “That in this moment there is life and food/For future years” and that “Thy memory be as a dwelling-place/For all sweet sounds and harmonies” to be recreated in moments of tranquil recollection, in the mind, or on the page, as I am writing this very moment… Not an ancient church being reclaimed by nature, but I think my corn-field concert is just as worthy of such thoughts “too deep for tears.”

Or, to slightly alter the lyrics of another cut from Ragged Glory, you’ve got to “Love to Learn.”


Late one night I was walking
in the valley of hearts.
A spirit came to me and said:
You gotta move to start
You gotta take the first step
You gotta crawl to be tall
And then she told me something,
something that
I’ll never forget.

You gotta love to burn. LEARN!
You better
take your chance on love.
You got to let your guard down
You better take a chance,
A chance on love.
(OF WORDS)

Well, that was a stretch–but experiences like Neil Young jamming in a corn field do it for me. I think English Majors and students of the Humanities have a special affinity for such moments. We love to get together and get deep, man–drive life into the corner, as Thoreau was telling my students this morning, and see what it is all about. This is one of the true JOYS of our discipline–the FUN we get to have by living in close association with serious readers and writers on a daily basis. My students may not agree, but I have a lot of FUN in classes–even in the hard work of preparation and grading. We have tremendous FUN in and around our offices just sharing some thoughts over a cup of coffee on the latest thing we read, taught or learned–and both the pleasures and frustrations attendant with our discipline.

And there are the perks. I’m looking forward in two weeks to attending the Western Literature Association conference in Victoria, British Columbia. The theme for this year’s conference is “Bordersong,” and we have put together a panel presentation–from little Chadron State College–that is going to rock those Canucks. Here is the composition of our panel presenting on Thursday afternoon, November 6:

Plain Songs with a Beat: Music and Walking as Spiritual and Social Journey in the West:

Matthew Evertson: “Escape Artists: Songs and Settlement in Three Nebraska Writers”

Steven Coughlin: “Finding a Voice: Thea Kronberg’s Rejection of Gendered Social Conventions in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark”

Thomas Deane Tucker and Kathleen Woods: “Rucksack Revolution: Images of Walking in the West in Kerouac”

So notice the clever language used throughout–the alliteration and vivid imagery, the double meanings behind “Plain” and “Beat,” and the way we have integrated seemingly disparate themes and topics into one set of presentations? See how our panel aligns with the broader conference theme of “border songs”? What do we have here other than a shining example of FUN WITH WORDS?

And it is our WORK with words that allows us this opportunity–to travel to a part of the world we have never been. To mix and mingle with other lovers and workers of words. To attend several panels at the conference and continue to “love to learn.” (And, to skip several panels and learn more about Victoria and the region and the local taverns and restaurants).

For those of you planning to be future educators–such joys await (along with all the hard work). For our current students, you, too, can have FUN WITH WORDS. Two years ago our department helped to send EIGHT of our students to the Sigma Tau Delta International Conference in Portland, Oregon. (We sent students again last year to Savannah, Georgia).

Student trip to Porland, 2013

Student trip to Porland, 2013

Portland, 2013

Portland, 2013

Our students have not only attended such conferences, they have presented their work to much acclaim. If you are involved with studies in English and Humanities at CSC, you have many such opportunities: open mic events, field trips, writing workshops, fundraisers, etc… You can learn more about such opportunities by reading earlier entries in the OUTSIDEYOURSELF blog–just scroll down for insights from students who attended the Portland conference, for example.  One of these blogs outlines specifically what you can do to WORK WITH WORDS and have a good time doing it. Here it is: https://outsideyourself.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/work-with-words-get-paid-for-your-passion/

If you live and learn in this region, perhaps you have a chance to visit our big city to the North. Driving back from Rapid City, I’m always impressed as I round the curve of Buffalo Gap National Grassland–and perceive the wide open plains before me. You can see all the way to Chadron–and at night you can see the lights beckoning. You pass a sign. This IS the Good Life–not because of where we live, but how we live.

You’ve gotta love to learn, baby. You gotta take a chance…

Outside Your Self-Discipline

Hello Outsiders. Yesterday we explored the definition of “discipline,” and I posed the following question:

As English Majors and Minors, teachers and students, and general lovers of the written word–can we advance in our discipline without discipline? How much of our work within the discipline will involve “obeying” and “rules”? As a teacher or a student–how much do we enforce one to support the other?

We all love to read and write, for sure–but it can’t be all fun, can it? In posting midterm grades today, I was reminded of the cycles and seasons of the academic life. I love college so much, I never left–but for some reason I find myself surprised at various times each semester by the sheer volume of reading and writing we all choose to take up as practitioners of this discipline (as teachers, students and life-long learners). At times like this, our lives certainly seem governed by a lot of “rules” we have to “obey.” Are we crazy?

My wife thinks so. She teaches High School English–and there the pressure is even more intense. This past Friday found her grading essays when she got done with school, much of the day on Saturday and Sunday, then meeting with a colleague at 7pm on Sunday evening to go over grades to be shared with students the following day. When she was able to join her children and husband for a brief respite and linger over dinner (pizza is a sure-fired way to call her forth from the grading den), we barely recognized the stranger in our midst. She had bloodshot eyes and “grading elbow.”

Now that’s crazy. Yet we have more English Education Majors in our program than ever. What gives?

We love words. What else can be the explanation? (Well, to be fair, we may not “love” the words in that particular passage of the seventeenth essay we have graded that evening, the one with all the comma errors, but we know that, eventually, we will arrive at a passage that blows us away and takes our heads clean off, as Emily would say). Those of us working within this discipline take on faith that language will be our savior, at some point–every week, we will be vindicated in our chosen path. My students suffering through those long passages of Emerson will emerge from the Concord woods, transparent eyeballs ablaze, arduous midterm exam conquered,  and encounter a black bird sitting in their study, ready to creep them out and reaffirm their belief that, somehow, literature is fun!

raven

Our discipline requires of us a lot of hard work. Any professional career or course of study will, obviously–but are English majors special gluttons for punishment? As I chat with students this week of midterms, I’m reminded of just how much they have on their plates–all the writing projects and all the pages to read. I remember being overwhelmed many times throughout my undergraduate and graduate career, wondering just how in the hell I was going to digest all of that material! Let alone savor it, meditate on it–engage is slow reading, as Deane Tucker wisely advised a few blogs ago. How could I possibly get through it all. Sometimes (gasp), I couldn’t! I’d have to prioritize or “triage” which assignments across my courses demanded my attention first and foremost (hint to my students, it is always American Lit). When I was unable to complete a reading assignment, I would feel intense anxiety–not that the professor would call on me, or that I would screw up a quiz or exam–but that I was being left out of that shared reading experience of the class. I would sometimes get upset when the professor would CUT a reading from the schedule. How masochistic is that? I somehow felt, deeply, that motto you see emblazoned on bags from Barnes and Noble: “so many books, so little time.” But was it worth all the the 3am essays, the cups of joe, the frantic call of the inkjet minutes before class? Who would choose this?

And so I understand the near revolt of my students this morning who complained that we had set aside just ONE day for Edgar Allan Poe. (Trying to lure me into the catacombs for a nice draught of wine was a bit over the top, though). We are all addicted to reading–though we might not all pick the same poison. (For those of you going on to teach, when you get your own classrooms–you can assign as much Poe as you want. For now, let’s turn our pages to Walden…)

In short, we have chosen a discipline that does require, at times, a certain devil’s bargain. In order to get “paid” in good grades, diplomas and, eventually, salaries, we agree to live within a world of self-discipline. We will read a lot–and not always for pleasure. We will write a great deal–often, not for the fun of it. We will internalize the rules of acceptable usage and, when needed, obey them. We will prop open our eyelids and push through to the end of the chapter. We will tap tap on our keyboards until we reach that word count. We will assess the written work of others, many who won’t share our perverse love of language. We do this because we know no other way to fill our lives with what we love.

Words.

In this blog space a year or so ago, I penned a promotion for our program that sought to appeal to all you hopeless reading and writing addicts out there. WORK WITH WORDS became our mantra. It has that nice double-meaning that all English majors can appreciate: find a profession where reading and writing are integral, and where you get to literally “work” with language day in and day out. A colleague recently shared a link to a website that endorses this theme, helping us to imagine why we might want to study within the arts and humanities, and seek out those attendant careers. Here is a link to the website:

http://www.ah21cw.com/category/why-humanities/

You can make more money elsewhere, perhaps. You might have more free time to watch Big Bang Theory, or surf the internet. But at the end of the day, will your brain thank  you? Will you get outside yourself? Face it–you need words, and they need you. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can turn the page…

 

 

In the Discipline: You can Leave Your Hat On….

evertsonDear Outsiders–this week the blog will focus on the concept of “discipline.” I hope to explore this idea from several angles: discipline in the classroom, self-discipline within your chosen field of studies, the work of building expertise within a discipline and, finally, the idea of integrating disciplines (or being “interdisciplinary”).

Part ONE: “You Can Leave Your Hat on…”

I often “discipline” my writing students when they begin a paper with “Webster’s Defines…” (insert topic or idea here). This is possibly one of the lamest ways to start an essay–but, as the maxim goes: do as I say, not as a I do:

Google Defines “Discipline” like this:

discipline

So what do you think? Many of you reading this blog are educators, plan to be educators, or are currently in classrooms with all sorts of educators attempting to impose “discipline.” What IS our role in regards to discipline the classroom–particularly the ENGLISH classroom, which (I know it is hard to believe) is not always the most enthralling environment for some students. What frustrates you in your learning environment–either as a student or (potential) instructor? Texting okay? Snapchat? A noisy classroom is a sign of “learning in progress” we are often told–is this true, or an excuse for chaos? Those students chatting in the corner–disruptive? Open debate and discussion with no ground rules–should we raise hands? Pass around a conch?

And what about that guy over in the corner with the hat on? (here I would link to the titular Joe Cocker song, but it will bring up a clip from 9 1/2 Weeks, which introduces up all sorts of disciplinary problems for this blog, and perhaps disciplinary action against the blogger).

The reason why I bring up the HAT is that I know some teachers who simply cannot abide such cover in the classroom–and it struck a chord with me this weekend when I listened to an episode of This American Life that was devoted to the idea of classroom discipline. Here is a link to the episode:

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/538/is-this-working

In the opening anecdote, a middle school student has been asked to remove his hat. He refuses. Several teachers then share their views on how the situation should be handled–from a sharp look to throwing a shoe, and everything in between. The episode explores many issues related to classroom discipline–from what seems to be a pretty clear connection between race and discipline, to comparing and contrasting “zero tolerance” approaches vs. more discuss/redirect approaches. What is the best way for a teacher to manage a classroom? Listen to the program to find out. (Spoiler alert–there is no right or wrong approach…).

Which brings us back to Webster’s, er, Google–and that dictionary definition. In viewing the concept as a verb, we discipline our students, our classmates–maybe ourselves–by training to obey rules or codes of behavior, usually with some sort of punishment. As a noun, we think of discipline as that  “practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.” Whether an action or a thing, neither one of these sounds too pleasant. But what of that second definition: “a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education”? As English Majors and Minors, teachers and students, and general lovers of the written word–can we separate the two? Can we advance in our discipline without discipline? How much of our work within the discipline will involve “obeying” and “rules”? As a teacher or a student–how much do we enforce one to support the other?

“Tune in” for the next blog, which will explore this question further.

Dr. Evertson

Family Values

Here is a story by Maryah Harding written in our fiction writing class. The technique under focus was the use of setting in story. The assignment asked students to put a character in conflict with their surroundings and for that character to respond in an expected way.

Family Values

By Maryah Harding

            Light mist sprinkled across Adelaide’s porcelain skin, making it glisten with the icy drops. Her limp, midnight hair clung to her flushed cheeks.  The air was heavy around her as she walked down the abandoned road, the soft glow of the flame colored streetlights barely breaking through the harsh gray of the night.  Adelaide’s shoes made a gentle thud with each step as she bounded along the street.

“One pill, two pill, red pill, blue pill!” Adelaide sang out loudly, her lyrical voice sifting through the air like a bluebird’s song, the sound of cracking branches acting as a drum beat to her whimsical song.  Adelaide removed the bottle of pills from the pocket of her tattered coat and shook them, the rattle of the medication inside matching her angelic voice.

Adelaide stopped in front of the Clarence house.  The wind howled through the air and caressed her lightly soaked skin, the light mist turning in a drizzle of frozen kisses.  She opened the pill bottle and shook out the multicolored pills, letting them fill her palm.  She held them lovingly, like one would hold a fragile bird, frightened and alone. Throwing them into her mouth she swallowed them down, her tongue reaching for the droplets of water as the tightening in her chest began to fade and sweet ecstasy coursed through her small frame.  The looming house reached for her with open arms, shifting in the darkness.  Adelaide leapt through the dangling fence, the wood slowly rotting away from the abandoned house.

Adelaide’s girlish laughter tinkled through the roaring wind to the rotten front door and broken windows, the glass strewn across the damp floor boards.  The branches of the ancient trees scraped against the panes and drew black shadows across the ruined house, raking down the already scratched lumber.

“Mummy, Daddy, Cattie, I’m home!” Adelaide’s voice rang through the empty house, her creaking footsteps echoing through the house.  She gave a small twirl as she danced through her home, her fingers tracing the walls softly, like a man traces his lover’s delicate mouth with his rough fingers.  Adelaide entered the kitchen, her mother lounging in the antique chair, resting her head against the uneven table.  Adelaide skipped to her mother, wrapping her fragile arms around the older woman.  Adelaide gently kissed her mother’s crying eyes, the tears streams of red liquid on her wrinkled face.  She let go, watching her mother slump back into the position, her dress ripped and dried with dark stains, splashed in intricate designs across her body.

Adelaide left her mother to rest in the kitchen, humming one of the nursery rhymes her mother used to sing to her, “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head! Chip, chop, chip, chop the last one is dead!” Adelaide giggled softly as she waltzed into the living room, drops of water hitting the floor, leaking onto the moth ridden couch.

“Hi, daddy.  I’m home.  Guess what I learned today?” Adelaide prattled on as she curled up next to her father on the couch.  She leaned over and picked up her father’s ashen head and planted a kiss on his mouth, like little girls always do.

“I learned how to tie my shoes!  I did a good job! Teacher said so.” Adelaide returned her father’s head to his lap, his skin sagging against his brittle bones.  Her lips a darker shade of wine now as she ran her fingers through her father’s nearly bald head.

Adelaide left her aging father on the couch, making sure his head wouldn’t roll away like it had the tendency to do when she left him for too long.  She scurried up the steps to little Cattie’s room, making sure to skip the missing step.  Adelaide opened the door covered in ripped pictures drawn by careless hands, the absence of light hiding the content of the pictures from her smoky eyes.

“Cattie, are you sleeping?” Adelaide called out softly into the hushed room, the patter of raindrops hitting the window in a ceaseless pattern.  She crept softly into the room, stepping over the decaying stuffed animals, picking up Peter Rabbit Adelaide continued to her sister’s sleeping form.  Pulling the covers back slowly as to not disturb her resting form, Adelaide snuggled in next to her.  Lovingly she ran her fingers through Cattie’s matted hair, Cattie’s blue lips parted slightly as if about to say something.

As sleep enveloped Adelaide’s girlish limbs, she murmured against her sister’s deathly cold skin, “Don’t be sad anymore, Cattie.  Sissy will be able to play with you again tomorrow. And Mummy and Daddy will be there too.  I promise.”