So how has it been, really? Well, 2009 was an interesting year, with a lot of travel, some new experiences, a lot of time in the spring to think about research questions, a fall term that had no disasters; but the whole year was colored by my mother’s death just before Christmas 2008. Various people said things about that event that were helpful in coping with it: It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event, so don’t be too hard on yourself; the death of a mother is a wound to the soul; we’re lucky when we understand what’s going on while it’s happening and manage to show up for it; grief is ego. The last remark was quoting the speaker’s meditation teacher, and everyone else in the room looked shocked, but it shifted and lightened the load I’d been carrying.
My chosen theme for the year was (re)creation, which may have been overly ambitious: it felt like what I was doing was hanging on or convalescing, not creating. And yet there were new or renewed experiences, many of them recreational, and a lot of reflection, all of which may yet bring about further changes, creativity and productivity.
I visited places I had not been before, or had not been in some years: mainland Mexico, New Haven, the Huntington Library, Cambridge (both), Exeter, New York City, Washington DC. I went on a cruise, I hiked in Mexico, I attended a Broadway musical and the New York City Ballet, I saw Leonard Cohen in concert twice. I reconnected with some old friends, one from college and three from graduate school; but another old friend seems to be slipping away. Life has its seasons.
During the spring term, I was on sabbatical, and while “real writing” (finishing an essay for a book collection; a couple of conference papers) felt like very hard, slow work, as I re-read my personal and research journals I see that I wrote a lot about ideas, things I was reading, plans for re-working the project that went bad, ways of tackling that new project: though this reflection hardly deserves the status of “rough draft,” it is useful material that I can mine as I move forward with this work, and I am pleased to re-discover it now.
In August, I went back to the classroom (3 classes, 79 students), trying out a lot of new ideas and revisions. Some worked, some didn’t. This integration of bibliographical research and literary study worked well for most (not all) of my grad students. Teaching close reading to undergraduates is still heavy going; giving out the pre-marked passages for analysis did not work very well, in the end. It may have helped some students, but others found it far too constraining; some simply couldn’t see connections in the groups of words I selected (they might also have had trouble coming up with their own groups, of course). Teaching paleography in literature classes went better with the graduate students than with the undergraduates, I suspect largely because of the difference in class sizes. I was dismayed to be reminded of my undergraduates’ limited vocabulary in present-day English: how can I teach them Middle English when they don’t recognize modern words like bough, brood, clad, and other words that will not be glossed because they are not archaic? I was also dismayed by a graduate student who assured me that “however” is a conjunction and that “of you and I” is correct because “you and I” is a compound, although I felt slightly relieved when the student accepted my explanation that prepositions govern the entire phrase that follows.
The lived themes of the year, as noted in my personal journal, turned out to be place and friendship. I have a vexed relationship to my current place, and often wish to be elsewhere; I enjoy travel and exploration of new places; I feel very much at home in libraries, wherever they are. I had excellent visits with a lot of friends, experienced a disappointing visit from a childhood friend, and saw a number of ways I have failed in friendship towards someone I esteem. I picked up bad habits from my mother, who was a difficult and demanding person; it’s hard to avoid behaving in ways one deplores when those ways are so constantly on display. But that part of my life is over; I am now free of both her bad example and the irritation and anxiety she used to cause me. I’ll hope that this means better things for all of my relationships.