Thursday, January 05, 2012
The Power of Knowing Oneself
I believe that there are two ways of moving through the world: to trust all whom we meet until they prove that we cannot, or to trust no one until they prove that we can. I am of the first ilk.
Today I had an uncomfortable experience that now, a couple of hours later, I am looking at much differently than I did in the moment. I was at lunch with a couple of colleagues and, towards the end of the discussion, one of them lodged what I perceive as a very heated, even vicious attack on me. It seemed to come out of nowhere, especially since I have considered this individual as a friend and certainly to be likeminded. But hey, it happens and I am not always the best judge of others. I take people at face value and assume that they are trustworthy until they prove otherwise, as I stated above.
One of the challenges that was slung at me like hot tar was that of my "qualifications." What were my qualifications that allowed me to make judgments of others' work, etc., to make my assertions of what I believe and know of poetry? This individual pressed on: "You only have your Associates degree, right?!" I replied, "No..." "You have a B.A.?!" Again, "No." "You don't have any degree?! Well, you have no qualifications...you have no rights to sit on your mountaintop and proclaim you know anything at all..."
If only this had been the sum of the slurs and hurtful accusations. I will forgo the remainder. But this one of the predominant of those many hurdles I have struggled to top for a long, long time. What is even more hurtful is that this individual knows that I do not have any academic degrees and also knows that it has been a considerable sore point for me, a source of insecurity and self-doubt for as long as I can remember. It has also been an insecurity that I have been healing because I have to look at the 7-page CV with honest eyes and see what I have done, in spite of no college diploma.
What gives me the "right" to teach poetry, to guide others, and to make aesthetic determinations of others' work? I can start with this: 40 years of immersion in poetry with an eagerness to learn, grow, apply what I glean, and learn more. I have one chapbook, two full-length collections of poetry, and a textbook for educators to my name. I have published many individual poems, and I have written numerous critical essays over the years. I have been teaching at some level for nearly 20 years now, now to the tune of 2000+ students of all ages annually, and I have been an editor for more than 15 years.
I read poems, essays, novels, memoirs, blogs, articles, and loll about in the world of language. I push myself a great deal and I teach what I want to learn. It is in the teaching where I most have to validate my own aesthetic, sometimes to someone who is in their 60s, sometimes to a 3rd grader, but always have to give an authentic and informed reason to substantiate my statements in an effort to support that other person in their pursuit of language, expression, and craft.
I am not a person who has ulterior motives. There are those who have attempted to accuse me of such over the years. I have to remember that they can only accuse me of such only because they are capable of it themselves. These people are often bullies. This afternoon, I dined with a bully; a bully who also chose to attack and insult in a public place, which is also an act of cowardice.
I don't have a diploma on my wall. But I intend to by the time I turn 60, 2 years from now. I will be completing my degree because it has become such an important symbol to our society of what we know and how much we can be trusted. Somehow, someone young enough to be my son or daughter could have achieved his or her MFA and have more respect than the many years of self-study and practical application I have completed in my 40 years of adulthood. It is curious that a peer would froth so much at the mouth over such a thing.
What I know about myself is that I do what I can and as much as I can to support my friends, my peers, and my students, in fact, my community, both locally and at large. I am not perfect. I miss deadlines sometimes. I do not follow through sometimes, mostly because it has always been hard for me to say no to a request for help when I think I have something to offer. But I have never found a perfect human either. It is antithetical to the definition.
I also know that I am an accomplished artist who has persevered in spite of many obstacles, some of which were self-fashioned. I know I am persistent and resilient. I know that I am pure in my intention. And I know that I will always have the opportunity to grow and learn more, which I hope to express in quality writing and in effective teaching.
That is enough for me. If others want to see me in a light that is merely a projection of their own fears and flaws, so be it. In the sage words of some book I have never read but think of often, "It is none of my business what you think of me." I was angry and frustrated in the moment but I know what my qualifications are: a life well lived, an honest heart, a giving intention, and a whole lot of poems committed to the page. That will just have to suffice.