In a few weeks I will be celebrating the 4th anniversary of this blog. If my numbers are correct, this is my 200th entry. I never imagined this activity would have such durable legs. I started it as a repository for writings that were languishing in my computer. They were too long, too short or too odd to find a home in any existing medium, so I built my own. But once that back log was depleted, I found that I enjoyed the discipline of meeting a self-imposed deadline every week, so I kept going. I was amazed that I had enough in my head to sustain me through a pandemic, a frightening presidential election, four gardening seasons, family celebrations, travel adventures and the endless flow of trivia that constitute a life. Just yesterday a stranger approached me to say how much she valued my last entry. That’s something I never envisioned in November of 2019.
I must confess that I am not a blog reader. There are so many clogging the ether that to follow too many of them would require abandoning any semblance of a normal life. That’s why I resisted doing my own for so long. There is only one blog that I read regularly. Sometime after midnight every night without fail, Diane Ravitch’s words appear on my screen. They are my morning coffee. With them I awaken to the world I continue to inhabit, both awake and in my dreams – the world of schools, teachers and kids. Ravitch alerts me to the latest assaults on public education and, more broadly, to the misdeeds of our elected officials and the wealthy who, too often, pull their strings. Her entries are often collages of the postings of other like-minded educators. I’ve done that on rare occasions, but mostly I’m dredging material from the depths (or shallows) of my own psyche.
I’ve learned a few things about the genre, if it deserves such a regal title. For example, very few readers were prepared to tackle some of the early entries from my “archives” which sometimes ran as long as 15 pages and more. Nor could I write anything of that length weekly. Readers could digest something that ran 3-4 pages before they got on with their busy lives. That was a perfect match for the shape in which my ideas seem to come these days.
There’s very little out there about the “art” of blogging, so I was excited to learn of a new book by an old and dear friend and colleague Phillip Lopate, called A Year and a Day. Phillip has developed a well-deserved reputation as the foremost expert and enthusiast for the personal essay, from Montaigne to the present. On the basis of his work in that area, an editor at The American Scholar invited him to produce a year’s worth of blog entries which the magazine would publish as they emerged. The year was 2016 but only now has Phillip gotten around to editing them into this volume. Editing a blog could be considered cheating, a violation of the spontaneity of the form but a book plays by different rules, so I was willing to overlook that breach because I knew I was going to learn from Phillip’s foray into blogging, and I was certainly going to be entertained by it.
Phillip is one of the most interesting people I know. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of so many different areas that make you wonder how there is brain space for all he has stored up – literature, movies, art, jazz, architecture, education, baseball. Because our lives have intersected in multiple ways, I have been the beneficiary of some tiny corners of that storehouse. For a minute I was his boss at a worthy project in the New York City public schools called Teachers and Writers Collaborative which placed professional writers in classrooms to introduce new approaches to writing and literature. Out of that experience, Phillip published Being with Children, one of the most insightful and original books about working with students that I know of. During his work in a Manhattan elementary school, he accomplished the amazing feat of directing Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya with a group of fifth and sixth graders.
Years later, Rosellen was offered a job teaching in the writing program at the University of Houston. In one of the blog posts in the book, Phillip explains how he came to precede us there because of an invitation from the poet Cynthia MacDonald, the founder of the program. The fact that Phillip, the ultimate New Yorker, had managed to make a life for himself in Houston was enough to convince us that we could too. During our years together in that funky city which we came to love, Phillip and I recreated that New York program which was now called WITS –Writers in the Schools — and linked it to the University’s writing program, where it is now a fixture of the city’s literary scene.
Over the years, Phillip returned to New York and we landed in Chicago, so our contacts have been less frequent, but there’s been a wonderful generational jump. He has become close to our daughter Adina and her husband Peter, who are now our conduit for news of Phillip.
There’s so much in Phillip’s introductory essay “On Keeping a Blog” that speaks to my own experience as a blogger. There’s the relaxed language he speaks of that’s like the warm conversational tone that characterizes friendly letters. Then there are the endings that “are often more abrupt than I would have allowed myself in a typical essay. I would come to the end of an idea and think ‘Well, it’s only a blog; that should be good enough.’” I have to admit that it’s liberating not to feel obligated to fashion a complete structure to hold up your argument. For now, in a blog, just the scaffolding can be in place.
“I was not putting myself forward as an expert in these matters, but only as an observer responding to my latest encounters. …. I could dart in, entertain perverse notions, and then get the hell out before I really get myself in trouble.” That captures a big part of what’s been fun about blogging. You can pretend to have expert opinions on many topics without really having to display your credentials. It’s less of stretch for Phillip because he is in fact a true polymath who has the stuff to back up his words, even though he doesn’t have to display his papers in the blog. The truth is that I have to do a bit more shucking and jiving to impress the reader with the strength of my positions.
Perhaps the most important lesson I take away from Phillip’s blogs, which is equally true about his essays, is his willingness to be absolutely, unrelentingly honest, particularly about himself and his own shortcomings. It’s a quality I aspire to, but I’m both less courageous and more withholding than Phillip. Something to work on.
I’m proud of the blogging I’ve done over this stretch that’s as long as a presidential term — mostly. Some are flatter and less engaging than others, usually a sign that I was struggling for a topic that week. Phillip helped me use its seriousness as a forum for ideas and memories, while at the same time discouraging the author from taking himself too seriously. It’s time to get working on the next batch of 200.