10-15 years

Last Friday a few weeks before my teaching application is due I found out that I need to take a four-part standardized test.

It put me into a bit of a panic because studying for a standardized test is…not a fun way to spend my time. Especially one that I thought I didn’t have to take. I’d much rather be reading books I like than studying for a proxy of all the good things of literature.

And let me tell you, signing up for that test in itself was a huge headache. First, you sign up for the tests and pay with your credit card. THEN they send you an approval email that lets you actually schedule the test. So you’re left waiting for this email to come in. I made the mistake of signing up for all four tests at once (as you would think to do) but then THAT was a mistake. If you want to take the four tests broken up over different days, you have to sign up for each test INDIVIDUALLY. Which requires answering the same ten questions about your background FOUR TIMES. I had to call to figure this out. Then waiting for the email to come in that would let me cancel that initial test, then signing up for those four tests one at a time and waiting for those emails to come in so I could schedule the test.

It took me literally two full days of hovering over my email to get my testing schedule. (The people on the phone were very nice though.)

As much as I resisted taking this test, I accept it now. If anything, it puts me in students’ shoes and how those standardized tests matter so much. (If I don’t pass this, I definitely don’t get into the program.) I feel deep empathy for anyone in high school who has to take these kinds of tests. Through this process I remembered how easy it is to get into some warped thinking of how the test score is who you are.

And thinking it over today it made me realize that I am unwilling to jump through those hoops so blindly. There are two writing portions of the test. The temptation is study and get through it and pass. But you know what? I can’t write some critical essay analyzing texts where I don’t care. I can’t write some perfunctory essay where I answer everything but the essay has no human soul attached to it. I would also not want students to approach it in this way. And honestly I feel like that is a waste of my skills and my time.

Whatever you write, matters. Make it matter. Whatever you do in your life, make it matter. This is a very Buddhist idea. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how when you wash the dishes, you don’t think about the cup of tea you get to enjoy after and getting through the task as quickly as possible, you WASH the dishes and you ENJOY washing the dishes. This is your life, don’t waste a minute thinking it is not your life. He said the same thing about people with kids. He said the temptation is to think your time does not start until your child goes to bed but that it is important to be able to spend your time with your family and still see it as your time. I haven’t figured this out 100% yet, but I understand the deep feeling behind it. I have felt it in moments.

Anyway, after I figured that out, taking the test really doesn’t seem so bad. I also let go of the outcome of absolutely needing to pass, as in I HAVE to pass. Let’s see how it goes. I can always re-evaluate plans later. Who says plans have to be so all or nothing?

One nice thing about being in my mid-thirties is that my friends have all committed to something long enough to end up close or near where they ought to be, and I get to observe it. I have been thinking about two friends in particular after they helped me think through a problem. Being able to turn to them in utter confusion and have them walk me through different but equally important solutions made me realize that they both do such good work in the world. One is finishing up her PhD in cultural studies and she is the friend I turn to when I want to talk about all things related to race. Another friend worked for five years as a high school English teacher in the LAUSD and now works in education non-profits. I remember right after undergrad she got into all these top law schools but chose to go be a teacher instead. 10-15 years later I can see how much they’ve progressed, how they are real resources for me to turn to when I have troubling questions, and how incredibly insightful and intelligent they are because of the time they have spent thinking about these things.

And that’s so good to see.

The Reading!

Saturday night I did my reading for Litcrawl, and it was exhilarating. I can only remember about half of what happened because I was so nervous, but it was wonderful to have this be the ending to all my experiences in my writing program.

The week leading up to the reading, I was irritable and cranky. But by the time Friday rolled around, I was eerily calm–I’d accepted all of it. It probably helped that I got to see some classmates read at the bookstore Friday morning. Also, I had practiced enough that I knew my reading well by then. I also refused to look at my reading on Saturday because I didn’t want to feel sick of it but excited when I read it. It needed to rest, become fresh and new again in my eyes.

The reading proves to me that the anticipation of things is the scariest part, the part that eats away at me the most. Once I was up there, ok, I wasn’t as comfortable as when I’m talking to a close friend, but I could still function and do and get close to how I had practiced it at home.

We had the best possible setup anyone could’ve asked for. A glamorous, cozy bar filled with mostly friends, families, and teachers. We had a mic and speakers, and the crowd (a crowd!) was quiet when we were reading—it’s not always quiet from what I’ve seen in the past—so mostly people were there for us, and that was great for me to have for the first time I was reading my work out loud to so many people.

I finished reading, and I had no sense of how I did. (Later on, I got wonderful words from a few people, words that I’ll truly keep forever.) I was surprised by how exposed I felt. The things I write have me imprinted all over it—which I think is how most people feel about their creative work. And this experience was important because it gave me a sense of what it’s like to release creative work into the world. How you have to let it go and let it be weighed in other people’s minds, how they have to grapple with it and interpret it, and I have to just let it go out into the world and not hold up my finger and say “but, but,” “no, no,” “well, actually…” Everyone was supportive, but it gave me a small, tiny sense of truly letting something go into the world, without qualifiers, without trying to control the outcome. How you have to let it go.

This is an important part of the creative process. Who would say that they write for themselves and only themselves? Of course you make stuff so that other people can witness it, to say that you were once here and alive. If you write something and never show anyone, it’s like it’s only half formed. The other half is having people interact with it. So I appreciate that opportunity and it taught me what that feels like. As frightening as it feels, I know it’s important too.

But there is, I realized, too the importance of doing the work, of the cocooning, of the self-preservation, of going deep to those places on my own. Of being able to go underground and do that work privately. The reading was fun, but it’s not my default setting. I have to switch my brain to a different frequency to do that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about David Whyte and what he calls the discipline of asking the beautiful question:

[T]he ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered.

And you don’t have to do anything about it. You just have to keep asking. And before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.

I feel that in every way that writing is that for me, a place to ask the beautiful questions, the unanswerable questions. It can be scary to ask these questions because sometimes it can feel like, What is the point of asking these questions if there is no answer? Are you just being overly hopeful? Naive? Or sometimes I feel that society’s general attitude is, Don’t be stupid, don’t ask these kinds of questions.

So this is my beautiful question about readings. How do you read and remain vulnerable with your work? How do you stay open when, if you are an introvert like me, you just want to retreat? How do you read and use it as a way to connect with others a little more? This was my first reading. I’d like there to be more opportunities in the future not because of self-promotion on some grand level, but because as I get more comfortable doing this, I imagine this kind of work would feel good and fulfilling like the way writing does. It’s just another vein for that kind of communication, but how to learn how to do it, get better at it? What will be the trick that will make me feel more present and less like I’m barreling through it? I guess I’ll just have to see.