One of the interesting things about maintaining a daily writing practice is the way you can compare today’s mindset with what you were feeling last week, last month, last year, or beyond. On any given day, I might scribble words into my journal, type words into a file I save on my laptop, or post words to my blog. On some days, I might do all three. The result of so much daily writing is a cumulative record of my own psychological weather patterns: a vast supply of data chronicling my own inner climate.
Two weeks ago, for example, I re-read an essay I’d started to write about a month ago. I’d intended to post it as a blog entry illustrated with photos I’d taken at a football game J and I had attended in September, but I never got around to sorting through those photos, much less polishing and posting the accompanying essay. I’d started the essay about a month into the current semester, and the novelty of the term is apparent in every line: this is something I could have written only near the beginning of the academic term, when I was still feeling fresh, eager, and energetic.
Two weeks ago when I re-read that essay, I was in the midst of a phenomenon I’ve come to call the “dark night of the semester,” that point in every academic term when you’re tired, overwhelmed with work, and frankly feeling like you’ve lost your way. During this dark night, you look at your own syllabus with disgust, realizing nothing you’d intended to do with your class makes any sense; you lament your career choices, feeling you are the last person on earth cut out to work with undergraduates; and you find yourself silently muttering much too frequently a mantra of “I’m too old for this shit.” During the dark night of the semester, the thought of facing a classroom full of students, a folder full of student papers, or your own endless to-do list fills you with nausea, and the thought of trying to teach anyone anything makes you want to curl up and cry. If this dire ebb in your morale and motivation happens to hit when your students, too, are feeling sick, discouraged, and depressed, heaven help you all as you face a perfect storm of academic ennui: a dark night of despair that threatens to derail the entire semester.
Usually, my “dark night” arrives around week five of the semester: a little more than a month into it, when the novelty of the new term has worn off. This year, perhaps because I’m still new to Framingham State, the semester had more than the usual share of novelty hanging around it, so the dark night arrived around week ten: later than usual, but undeniable all the same. Even when the dark night tarries, I’ve learned, it never fails to arrive, eventually.
One torturous aspect of the dark night of the semester is being subject to the syllabus, assignments, and other teaching materials you’d designed months before, when you were feeling optimistic. Looking at the number, kind, and frequency of writing assignments you’d chosen to require, for instance, you can’t help but wonder what you were thinking. Who was I way back when I thought assigning X or requiring Y was a good idea…and who am I now that I’m actually having to grade the stuff I asked my students to submit? Because of my daily writing practice, I have a written record of both of these people: in my words, at least, I can watch Dr. Jekyll gradually transform into Mr. Hyde.
Years ago, when I was researching Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brief career as a Unitarian minister, I read that he recycled his sermons as he traveled from pulpit to pulpit, revisiting and revising the ones he delivered on multiple occasions to various audiences. Writing and delivering a fresh sermon every week is a daunting task: what about weeks when your faith is ebbing or inspiration is difficult to find? Because of this practice of re-using sermons he’d written previously, Emerson once stopped in the middle of reading an old sermon, nonchalantly remarked “I no longer believe this,” and then continued reading as if nothing unusual had happened.
I have to admire and even envy the gall, gumption, and grit Emerson displayed in this instance. For all the creeds we proclaim in churches, temples, or shrines, who among us has the nerve to state, loudly and proudly, “I no longer believe this”? Emerson was a life-long journal keeper, so even though he stopped writing (and recycling) sermons when he gave up his career as a Unitarian minister, Emerson never gave up the daily writing habit. The same man who famously wrote that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” had ample opportunity in his daily writing practice to watch his mind change, backtrack, and contradict itself. “Speak what you think now in hard words,” Emerson insisted, “and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” You simply have to love the nerve of someone who dares to waffle with such bold intensity.
It’s difficult—the hardest thing on earth, perhaps, a task even harder than teaching—to remain true to our own convictions. Given the optimistic statements uttered at the beginning of an academic term, how closely can you hold to those ideals when the dark night descends? “I no longer believe this” is what I wanted to shout from the rooftops when I re-read that essay two weeks ago, but at the same time, I fully recognized that when I wrote it, I believed it entirely. So which utterance is the full and simple truth: an optimistic declaration of what I believe on a good day, when I’m brimming with energy and ideals, or a fatigued and despairing recantation of everything that statement stands for?
Today was a brisk and bright day, and I enjoyed an afternoon walk even though I’m still buried in last week’s paper piles. This past week’s classes went well after I’d tweaked my original approach, and I hope that tomorrow’s classes will go well, too: even if we can’t accomplish everything I’d set out to do this semester, I’m seeing small steps in the right direction, and I cling to that hope. This morning when I re-read that essay from nearly a month ago, I found myself nodding with nearly every word. It seems the dark night of this particular semester has abated a bit, with a glimmer of light presaging an eventual dawn.
Today’s photos come from a walk I took last weekend, starting at the Brook Farm Historical Site in West Roxbury–where 19th century Transcendentalists tried (unsuccessfully) to establish a pastoral commune–and wending toward nearby Millennium Park and back.