“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre
The pressure of “the life” was starting to cause real emotional and physical problems. Forget sleep. Not from stress over grading or keeping up with prep. I’d long mastered that insanity back in Graduate School. I just couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t stop my mind from racing, stop the endless self-interrogation. Even driving the eighty or so minute round trip to work was, I don’t know: cluttered? Noisy? No. That’s not true. The stuff of the mind and the floating debris of seven years served wasn’t at all the cause of these distractions and life-sucking moments of fear and loathing in New England. I was haunted by choices; and not knowing whether I would be able to make new ones any time soon. Without wind in my sails or enough food for my crew, there was only so much rowing I and others could do to keep the S.S. Professor Career afloat without having to raise the red and black distress flags.
On this particular midday, I am on my way to the Sheriff’s office; my entire family in tow. My wife and I were being sued for not forking over what amounted to ten thousand dollars in extortion. The former owner of our once-in-a-lifetime-rent-to-own home decided to go window shopping with our security deposit after unlawfully evicting us while my wife was days away from giving birth. The phone call yesterday from my college’s VP re: the county Sheriff trying to serve me on campus was embarrassing enough. Now, I’m walking with three boys and my wife (carrying Oliver in a sling) across the street toward the court house–let’s look on this as a teachable moment, yeah, a CIVICS lesson. Now, the clerk in the tiny annexed shack behind the court building was overcompensating–my wife’s tears were impossible to hide in the florescent lighting. “What did we do wrong now,” my eldest said. (Through gritted teeth and a smile I said: “So . . . not . . . helping . . . “)
This was easily the lowest moment in my trip to Rock Bottom.
We drove to the college without talking. Thankfully I’d brought Arcade Fire and Mute Math with us that day. I really needed the pick-me-up inspiration we all experienced when listening to those CDs. I wondered if this feeling of regret coupled with anger and fear would become a permanent state of being. Certainly, this was Nothingness–the end of “something” and the arrival of so many possibilities. The next thing, right? This is the moment where you take a deep breath, figure it out, and move into action. But, that wasn’t happening. Even after years of academic living and artistic struggles, more than a decade at this point, I was constant and unbreakable. It was all part of “the life.” Not that I wanted to suffer; not that I even thought suffering for your art was a correct way to think about living an artistic life with conviction. I was at a loss for “what comes next”; I drove my minivan in a state of shock and indecision that I had never known before.
They dropped me off so I could teach my two o’clock American Literature course. As they drove away I realized that she had slipped me $5 for lunch. She was going to visit a friend. Not just to meet for a play date. The friend had offered lunch. No one said it but we didn’t have enough money to feed our kids that day. Well, that’s not exactly true–we were offered (another, thankfully) $75 to “cool slide” on her father’s checking Visa. But, that trip wouldn’t happen until after my three hour seminar on Twain and Chopin.
With five minutes to spare, I asked my closest colleague, my Chair, to walk with me.
“I can’t do this,” I said suddenly stopping and leaning my back to the wall a few doors down from my classroom.
It all came out. She knew most of it. But, it all came out. As our SEA/SEIU rep, she knew Adjuncts were keeping the college alive during years of gross mismanagement. There was no doubt she and her colleagues did everything to protect us from sociopathic administrators, staff minions who vied for the favor of the oligarchs, students looking for any excuse to leverage grades with emotional and policy terrorism. She already understood the self-created and very real pressures of writing a dissertation. Family. Other writing. But, the economic stress of adjuncting was starting to make it very difficult to balance teaching obligations with paying the bills. After all, it’s not like adjuncts can just take on more teaching or development at the speed payment is needed. With family and freelance needs, it’s also very difficult, if not impossible, to pick up short term work, even in restaurants and cafes that, in all fairness, expect their staff to make some kind of commitment.
It was just too much. And now, that son of a bitch and his wife were trying to leech off us once more and I swear to God, I swear to fucking God . . .
Ten second pause; she was the master of recentering. Nothing new agey. She was the real deal. This was a sentinel to sentinel moment. (Escuchame! Mira! Basta! All clearly communicated in her “stop.”)
My mind raced: “Had I really been here seven years?”
She knew I wasn’t ready to hear her just yet. So she paused a bit more: “You were born to teach today. This is one day out of many where you’re going to want to walk away. But, don’t. Not yet. We need you; they need you. So, just teach. Then, go home.”
Walk to the classroom.
“How’s everyone doing?” and something about struggle, learning hard truths about yourself, and why today may in fact be the best day to teach Twain and Chopin.