Sixty pairs of eyes follow me for four months. Then another 60, for another four. Then — at last — summer, when I am free from those staring eyes, the eyes half closed by sleep, even the eyes that are illuminated with sudden understanding — all those eyes that squint as they fill out student evaluation forms, the empty bubbles steadily becoming the dark cannonballs that determine my fate.
The system by which we are evaluated is Byzantine in its complexity and medieval in its outcome. The teachers in my program have to meet certain thresholds for certain questions, the number varying but always high. If we fail to meet these thresholds we fail to keep our jobs. So for eight months of the year, I have these numbers pressed into my brain like a brand. They steam and smoke and blacken there, waiting for me to make or miss them.
But then one summer I walked out of my last day of class and left almost immediately for a writing residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
I drove south on Route 29 with all the windows open; I didn’t speed (like I usually do) but instead I looked out the window, noted each county I passed through, considered what it would be like to live in Culpepper, wondered how to pronounce “Fauquier;” I let all the cares of the semester shear off and blow away in the rush of wind. I drove to the middle of the state and then took a winding single-lane road up a grassy field. I found an envelope with my name on it that gave me the number of the room I would sleep in and the key to the studio I would write in. I followed its directions and walked away from the residence, past a gazebo and a row of unopened peonies, along a fence that marked a cow pasture and then came to the studio barn. The barn was shaped like a U and my studio was in the right arm of it. Its one door was on the cove side, and its four windows looked out onto woods. To the right was an overgrown field that had a faint path curving away into the unknown. Later I would look at that path and think, that’s what writing is like.
I settled in and got to work. I wrote all day and late into the night when the wind swelled in the trees and I walked back to the residence through this rustling dark. There was something magical about this time. I was suspended, insulated, cared for, and writing — all in the privacy of the Virginia countryside. My teaching job and the staring eyes of my students seemed very far away. I started to feel like the wood-nymph Daphne, transformed into something that would confound my pursuers.
Daphne was the daughter of the river god Peneus. While her father wished for children and grandchildren through her, Daphne begged to “be like Diana,” and her father let her run wild through the woods. Then Apollo caught sight of her. Maybe he was shot by Cupid’s arrow, maybe his love for her was all his own, but he pursued her through the forest and she ran from him. He yelled out his name, his lineage, and his love, but none of it made any difference to her. As he got closer and closer, Daphne saw her father’s river before her and cried to him for help. In answer, she was changed into a laurel tree. Apollo was dismayed, but he honored the woman he lost by honoring the tree. According to Edith Hamilton’s version of the myth, he vowed, “With your leaves my victors shall wreathe their brows. You shall have part in all my triumphs. Apollo and his laurel shall be joined together wherever songs are sung and stories told.”
I am not as cold towards my pursuer as Daphne was. Daphne renounced love for the freedoms of the woods, but as much as I want to be free from teaching, I’m not renouncing it entirely. I don’t despise teaching — not at all. It’s pursuit that I flee from. Competition, perfection, unattainable causes. It’s this hot breath on the back of my neck that I want to escape at nearly any cost.
But instead of being fully transformed, I am like Bernini’s statue of Daphne — a hybrid, trapped. Bernini has caught her right at the moment of transformation — hands reaching to the sky, fingers unfurling into branches, leaves rising towards the sun. Bark has sprung up and encased one leg and her hair flashes in a spray of branches. She looks like frost skating across a windowpane, roots spreading deep into dark soil. Her face is discomposed, eyes and mouth open — in fear, anticipation, surprise. The marble she is made of tumbles from her body. She springs. She crackles. She lifts and is lifted. Her voice — now — would shriek. But she is beyond words. She fears the viewer, her pursuer. She will fear fire, drought, the axe blade, the hurricane. But that’s later. Now she wants to flee a different kind of fire — at any cost. She wants to continue what she’s begun, in private, alone.
Instead of swaying and rustling by the riverbank for all the decades a laurel tree has to live, I have only the summer. Soon I will be faced again with 120 pairs of new eyes, but this time with my hair filled with leaves, my fingers branching, my body half-encased in bark instead of collared shirts and dress shoes. What will those eyes see now?
When I was a graduate student I gave a talk to fellow graduate-student instructors about being a writer in the classroom. I used Aesop’s fable “The Bat, the Beasts, and the Birds” to show how I felt like a bat, trapped between being an academic (with the beasts) and a writer (with the birds). I felt too intellectual to be a writer, too creative to be an academic, and was pained by Aesop’s moral: “He who is neither one thing nor another has no friends.”
But now, leafing through a volume of Aesop’s Fables, I can’t find “The Bat, the Beasts, and the Birds.” Instead I find “The Bat and the House-Ferrets,” which has a similar story but quite a different moral. A bat is caught by a house-ferret and pleads for her life. The ferret says that she can’t let her go because ferrets are the enemies of all birds. The bat replies that she’s not a bird, but a mouse. She escapes, but is later caught by a second ferret. This second ferret claims to be the enemy of all mice. But the bat says that she’s not a mouse but a bird. A moral was added by a later collector of Aesop’s fables: “[I]f we are adaptable to circumstances we can better escape danger.”
Was Daphne adaptable? Instead of being one thing — a bat who could be seen as two things: a beast or a bird — Bernini’s Daphne is two things at once: a hybrid. But Daphne, at least in Bernini’s imagination, is stunning in her transformation. She is caught between two worlds, two identities, and although her transformation appears painful, there is still beauty in it. Perhaps this is where the artist comes in.
Bernini made the grotesque Daphne beautiful through his sculpture and I have seen in her a metaphor to help my own transformation. It doesn’t always seem comforting to imagine myself a tree, but when I think of escaping the fever of pursuit (in this case my own pursuit of perfect student evaluations, a higher merit score, my colleagues’ support, my department’s respect) and imagine myself rooted in something more fertile (a riverbank’s soil, the ground of my own ferocious imagination) I can see the beauty in a simple tree. The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts uses a tree — a woodcut from one of its artists — as their symbol. I have a print of it hanging over my desk to remind me of my time there and what it can ultimately lead to.
Chuck Wachtel, writer and teacher of creative writing (years ago mine), once told me: “I am an ornithologist, but I am also a bird.” He was reminding us, his students, that although he spends much of his time reading our writing, he is also writer himself and needs the time and space to practice his own craft. I, too, am a bird when I write. I am also an ornithologist, a studier of birds, when I teach creative writing, and a zoologist, a studier of beasts, when I teach academic writing. Sometimes I wear a leather glove and carry a jess, sometimes I wield a whip and a chair. I am a kinestesiologist and a runner, a pedagologist and a teacher, a dendrologist and a tree, a hybrid of all these things, but foremost a writer — always, always a writer.
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