The Phantoms and the Hurricanes battle it out at Darling a couple of blocks south. The stadium lights illuminate the treetops between us; though I can’t see the football game, a familiar voice announces the plays; though it won’t be quiet on my street tonight, the loudspeaker is drowned out by the devil on my shoulder, with a still more familiar voice. My insecurities perk up when it heckles me, and the potential inspiration in my blossoming evening glories is subsequently vanquished.
My juniors explored a released writing prompt today asking them to form an argument supporting or defending the statement, “Failure is not the worst thing in the world. The very worst is not to try.” So far, this topic has been the most popular. When asked to take a position about raising the driving age, these students struggle to move beyond the juvenile it’s-just-not-fair support that lends itself to ranting rather than arguing. Failure and trying, however, teenagers have an opinion, and supporting their position comes more naturally when they’re convicted by reason and experience, not just required task.
It’s been a while since I’ve been to church. Our discussions today left me marveling at the power of a young person’s shared voice, the collective sum of three classes weighted like a weekend retreat. Some students offered age old adages like, “You never know what you can do until you try.” Others supplemented diction, volunteering personal claims such as: “Failure can be a good thing because…” Is trying and failing worse than having tried at all? Year after year, Michael Jordan is provided as an example. No one ventured to disagree with the statement about not trying being worse than failing, at least not out loud. This discussion was the best all year in my lunch block class, and I am smiling into the eerie twilight and drum line’s solo because the crowd’s cheers from afar coincide with the previous sentence on my screen.
Of course, my students were inspiring. It’s far more acceptable to try and fail when you’re a teenager than it is when you’re in your mid-thirties, or at least the world’s response is safer, cutting you slack as you learn to navigate with a new mindset. I’ve come to expect a fair amount of anxiety surrounding writing nights these days, primarily because the things I most need to figure out aren’t fodder for public engagement. My fingers try to type while bound. I write honestly, week after week, and I’m discouraged because while I approached these writing nights with a priority for speaking truthfully, the personal details absent in my public narrative can be misconstrued. I’ve been authentic about the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that I own. Limiting my blogging topics might amount to a lack of total transparency, but I haven’t lied. I’ve been as honest as I am free to be without violating others’ privacy or damaging reputations.
So, last week, I identified my flirtation with taking a sabbatical. I’ve been doing community service at the library across from Darling Stadium a few hours a week, and the change of pace from a high school classroom is refreshing. On Saturday, it would have been warm enough to walk home after close, just before the sun set. I’d spent the last hour restocking books, marveling at all the thoughts people published that I hadn’t thought about before. The abundance of knowledge, the power of print, and Dewey’s master plan ordered my footsteps as a tiptoed through the stacks, looking always to the top or bottom shelf when pulling items for a hold request. People can be predictable. Themes apply everywhere.
I thought I would fail at blogging if I stopped these Tuesday night writing ventures. But I also thought I would write my way back to life again, so if no good can come from words typed by bound fingers, then why I am here? If I take the risk to share always more than I should, and that is not enough, and I’m not able to violate others’ privacy, then not sharing anything at all would certainly please the devil on my shoulder, the one taunting me as accompanied by a distant drum line echoing into the night, reminding me of past transgressions as though they are in present tense, and I try to fight the message that no good can come from me, that no amount of true words can ever change false ones in the past.
I love working in the library. It’s slow and quiet. The smell of the books welcomes me. It used to be that I felt most at peace and in God’s presence here on writing nights. I’m not sure if God is here or anywhere. The confession attached to judgment of my eternal soul should illustrate a willingness to be authentic about what actually matters, and even as I strike at the letters on the keypad, I chide myself for being more aware of the devil on my shoulder than the evening glories blooming beside me.
I didn’t plant them this year, didn’t water or feed or trim them, and yet I enjoy their unexpected arrival. The evening glories are, perhaps, the opposite of trying and failing: somehow not trying and succeeding. I appreciate the existence of a single white blossom because it’s rare such life and beauty comes without effort. There’s still an angel on the other shoulder, and it shows up in the stillness of the library, when I’m quiet, and I’m at peace, and I finger the spines of books published by writers who believed they had figured out the meaning of life.
I haven’t, but maybe I should be writing the story of figuring it out instead of weekly blog installments, treading carefully not to offend, condemn, or incriminate. I used to sense a brightness to the darkest of Tuesday nights, like the sunset beyond the library walls when I reconvened with the real world Saturday evening. Inside the locked doors behind me, books full of claims and thoughts slept in darkness, myriad opposing viewpoints lining the same shelves, contradictory truths side by side.
And I, tasting the sunset warm my skin after an autumn breeze, saw truth as it is instead of as we try to make it be. Black and white is easy, like the Dewey system; everything has a place… until you hit the CD collection, and you have evidence that even Dewey didn’t have it all figured out. My kids spent all day convincing me that trying and failing is better in the long run, and learning from my failures starts with writer’s growth, which would mean writing a story that makes others uncomfortable.
Maybe it’s time for a sabbatical, after all.