What Am I Not Hearing?

IMAG0647Hey, so I take  my cat for walks. Not on a leash. I just leave the yard and head out into the long grass that surrounds it, and he takes off. He sticks pretty close, except for when we get too close to a tree, and then he promptly scampers up it, ears back, a hint of the maniacal to his head whipping left and right, eyes round, tail twitching.

Yesterday I went for a walk with Ash, and he disappeared into the long, now desiccated marsh grass near our well. I squatted down next to the wall of yellowed grass, and he looked back at me from behind the yellow-white stalks; he was in a different world than me, I was still hunkered down on the green, lawn-like grass on my side of things. But from that vantage, I got a glimpse of his world. The yellow of the grass was beautiful. The uniformity of it, and the tiny variations in that uniformity, of speckled blades and spent seed-heads, was beautiful. The sound of the wind, sifting, sighing through the grass, was beautiful. I felt sad, and it was beautiful. I stood up, called the cat’s name in a voice pitching high, and walked down the corridor of cut grass on which we were walking. I turned a corner and looked back–all I could see was a thigh-high wall of pale yellow, green at its fringes–when Ash burst around the bend, fur streaking back, white paws stretched forward to the utmost, superman-like. He is a fucking ridiculous cat.

I write this blog on teaching and learning. I’m also writing a dissertation on Asian Canadian literature, social justice, and pedagogy (the theory & practice of teaching). And all this writing, and much of my thinking, lately, seems bent to one thing, rather counter-intuitive: I want a reprieve from learning.

Both of my first two, and, as of yet, only two dissertation chapters deal quite a bit with listening. I’ve become preoccupied with listening of late for two reasons. One: working as an upper-year grad student in the Humanities can at times feel like you’re talking to yourself. Two: I’ve had this growing sensation of late that I haven’t been listening very well, that I’m listening to the wrong things. No–not to the wrong things, but only to a certain type of things. Grad school has trained me (I’ve trained myself) to hear only certain types of voices, from certain types of sources, saying certain types of things.

I want a reprieve from this type of listening, from the type of learning to which it is attuned. I want to step away from criticism. I want to stop the constant critique and analysis that runs mechanically in my head. Holy crap, I want to squat unsteadily on a bleak Fall day and listen to the wind in the dead grass.

Before Ash and I set out for our walk that day, I had chosen to stay home from campus for the first time in months to throw a change of space into the creative mix of writing. I was sitting on my couch reading a chapter for a Cultural Studies Reading Group grad students in my department have re-instated this year. It was a chapter, “Imagined Immunities: The Epidemiology of Belonging”, from Priscilla Wald’s Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. On page 59, Wald mentions, in passing, a wartime massacre of unarmed civilians. I paused my reading to investigate, perhaps because my second chapter of my dissertation, the one I’m oh-so-near to completing, is about historical trauma, about fictional accounts of historical events of massive trauma.

After feeling thoroughly horrified for a time in front of the images and testimony on my computer screen, I returned reluctantly to the reading I was supposed to be doing. I scanned the rest.

The walk with Ash in the cheek-cutting grey air came directly after.

I cannot tell you how strongly I did not want to learn from the analysis that concluded that chapter–no matter how much I could objectively appreciate the author’s points. I stood in the washed-out greens, yellows, browns, and greys of that field and the wind mused past me, and I felt a persistent unease that I had been listening too long to something now too-familiar: the distant voices of academics mediated by multiple drafts, revisions, editings-out, print, and pdfs; or, maybe: my bloody head, always analytical, always asking, “why?”

It was a relief that day to huddle in the grass, listening to the wind, and my sad.

I’m not sure what I learned from any of it.

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