Keeping the Flame

 

I don’t know what the energy levels are like where you are but, from where I sit at a computer tucked in the back of the WC, things feel like pell-mell frenzy meets the very last ions of the battery reserves. If we’re anything like our cellphones—and, given how much those devices have become extensions of our body, I’d say the similitude can’t be denied—exclamation points have replaced the more regular percentages indicating how much power is left. This occurs at five percent on mine and is immediately followed by a “battery critically low” alert.

In this last lap of the academic semester, the battery inside you may be critically low the way mine is. And if final essays hang above your head like the sword of Damocles multiplied the way they often do for the students coming into the writing center, consultations might remind you of all those sentences still waiting for you to write them. The seminar paper, the honors thesis, the master’s report, the dissertation prospectus, the dissertation chapter. All the essayistic etceteras. Fortunately, you’re no stranger to dealing with the stress stalking the students with whom you consult. Unfortunately, those stress levels increase exponentially at the very point of the semester when our own reserves tend to be the most depleted.

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How do we keep our touchscreens from going blank? Rephrased: how do we summon the energy a consultation requires if and when we feel like we’re past the point of running on empty? Consulting is as energy-intensive as writing is, albeit in a markedly different way. The way I feel after a shift of consultations reminds me most of how I feel after teaching a class: invigorated, yes, but also exhausted. Writing triage, while exhilarating, is also tiring.

Seeing as those energy reserves mentioned earlier have all been spent, mid-April is when I begin to review how I’ve been maintaining what Anne Lamott calls “radical self-care” (though there are many examples, I personally recommend her book Stitches). Radical self-care could be defined as those habits of being that allow you to accomplish the tasks for which you’re accountable.

A few of mine that I’d put under the general category of being a civilized human, for example, include the following in no particular order: actually using the planner purchased at the beginning of the semester. Getting a full night’s sleep. Going to the buffet at Madras Pavilion at least once every two weeks for an idli with coconut chutney. Waking up early enough to have a cup of coffee before leaving the house so that I’m fit to interact with the world. Paying bills on time. Having a book of poetry with me at all times.        

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Suffice to say, some of those have been maintained more scrupulously than others as the semester winds to a close. Today, however, I’ve been thinking about what radical self-care looks like in relation to what a writing center consultation demands of me. What habits do I—can I—cultivate that replenish those taxed energy reserves? Though a consultation may range from thesis statements to MLA citations to paragraph development to transitions, writing is the center of all of this. And language is the center of writing. In the context of a writing consultation, then, being awake and alert to language is every bit as important as being attentive to the spoken and unspoken needs of the writer who enters that energetic space with me. When I’m tired or drained, however, or when I’ve been reading pages and pages of prose to write my own pages and pages of prose, I risk losing this sensitivity to language.

Poetry, for me, is language’s lightning rod. In her cantankerous paean to the genre, C.D. Wright describes poetry this way in Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil:

“Poetry is tribal not material. As such it lights the fire and keeps watch over the flame. Believe me, this is where you get warm again. And naked. This is where you can remember the good times along with the worst; where you are not allowed to forget the worst, else you cannot be healed. This is where your memory must be exacting—where you and your progeny are held accountable but also laudable. Even and especially in our day, in our amnesiac land, poets are the griots, the ones who see that the word does not break faith with the line of the body.”  

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I don’t know if poetry has been a linguistic zone where every phoneme hums for you or not. But when the days grow long and the nights grow longer, when staring at a computer screen does threaten to cause words to become disembodied and fragmented, poetry brings me back to that place where language lives. Here’s an example I carry with me by Jean Valentine from her collection Door in the Mountain, especially for hectic times like these.    

“Trust Me”

Who did I write last night? leaning

over this yellow pad, here, inside,

making blue chicken tracks: two

sets of blue footprints, tracking out

on a yellow ground,

child’s colors.

 

Who am I?

who want so much to move

like a fish through water,

through life . . .

                           Fish like to be

underwater.

 

Fish move through fish! Who

are you?

 

And Trust Me said, There’s another way to go,

we’ll go by the river which is frozen under the snow;

 

my shining, your shining life draws close, draws closer,

God fills us as a woman fills a pitcher.

 

~John Fry