Monday, February 4, 2013

City on a hill (the professor)

 The room had reached complete silence and Jeff had nothing written on his page. It had been almost an hour and nothing had come to him.
His hand was vile with sweat, the pencil slipping out and onto the page and onto the floor and the noise causing an embarrassing distraction time and again. He felt, in a way, lost on that sheet, the lines like bars and the pencil an unwieldy key that refuses to open its lock. This was the second time the professor had asked them to perform an in-class exercise, the first being the brick assignment, and Jeff had maybe never felt a greater pressure inside him. The assignment had been to write a scene where nothing happens. He had simply stood up and said,
   "Today you will write for 90 minutes. You will create a scene in which nothing takes place. Please put it on my desk when you are finished."
   Immediately, it seemed to Jeff, the whole class had burst into writing, even as the professor sat down. At first he had began rolling possibilities around like smoke in his mouth but each one tasted sour. It reminded him of the times he had tried meditating in high school, pushing thoughts out of himself, trying with all his will to quiet his mind, and yet the process of quieting itself just resulted in a greater internal noise.
    His first image was a vase on a table totally static and unruffled though, as he began to describe it in his head, Jeff soon found himself using action in the way 'light played on the petals' or 'a vernal breeze caused the stalks to undulate'. He then removed the flowers and the vase and the table and considered an empty room (for there is no action in an empty room) but found he needed to place the room in a continuum of activity to give it context and meaning, to imply action in the room. He began to feel frustrated as if he should be producing, creating, doing something and wasn't. Most painfully: he felt left behind. All these feelings had now simmered down into an exhaustion, a helplessness. A great despair.
   Jeff runs his hands through his hair, pulls at it for a second, drops his pencil and looks up to see the professor staring at him. Jeff is petrified, the man it seems up to this point never having so much as laid eyes on Jeff and now he is fully within his attention. The man stands up and motions him outside, stepping out of the classroom before Jeff has entirely processed what is happening. He stands, looks at the class (oblivious, all of them, intent on their work) and proceeds out of the room. The door closes loudly behind Jeff and he flinches.
  "How are things going?" he says with a tenderness which seems so out of place Jeff briefly entertains the idea that the man's body has become inhabited by some benevolent demon,
  "Uh, in general or like...?" he's standing in front of the professor, within just a few feet and closer than Jeff has ever been to him. In this place he finds he is physically unable to make eye contact with the man, tries but can only hold it for a fraction of a second. The professor is watching him raptly and Jeff begins to focus on how awkward and frightened he must appear.
   "Well if you need to talk about things, about your life, we can certainly sit down and do that at another time and place. At the moment I am more concerned with your performance on the assignment. I haven't seen you write one word today and, while I appreciate the necessity of deep thought, I'm becoming a little concerned. Your struggle is...palpable. I wanted to remind you that this is just an exercise. It doesn't need to be perfect." This last small sentence sweeps up on Jeff and hits him with the force of a tidal wave, the implications of it send him reeling.
  "Yeah well I feel stuck. It's like I know what to do but every time I try to start writing I have to stop myself because I feel like I'm doing it wrong." It is as if the professor's presence is so intimidating that Jeff has come out the other end to a complete lack of inhibition. Having him here all by himself, his total attention, the feeling that no matter what Jeff says the professor will think he is a fool, he now feels no restrictions, just lets loose. "It's like I get so little feedback on these pieces I have no idea how I'm doing, I'm not sure whether they are good or bad or what. And now I'm afraid to write anything because I'm worried I'm gonna screw it up. You know?" Finally Jeff is able to make and hold eye contact, the professor is still watching him intently. He is completely inscrutable, Jeff is entirely unable to tell what the man is thinking, whether he is angry, confused, or totally vacant. While he is unable to judge how long the pause lasts it makes Jeff feel uncomfortable (after the fact he will reflect on how, in truth it may have lasted only two or three seconds though it seemed easily ten times that length).
   "Jeff, listen: twice a quarter I have a small gathering of students at my house. We will be coming together this Friday and I would like to invite you to attend. Casey, a graduate student that works for me will be driving out, she can take you if transportation is an issue. We'll be having dinner. If you are able to come find Casey and let her know. " The professor smiles and turns to go back in the classroom, stops right before the door, turns to Jeff and says, "Just try not to think about it too much honestly. The assignment. Uh, you know, the prompt was to make you think about action and stasis, but don't take it to literally, just...write what works for you. You have about 20 minutes left, I'm sure you can work something out. " Jeff still stands struck quite dumb by the invitation which came so out of the blue. Jeff returns to the classroom and sitting at his desk notices that a few students have already finished writing, are flipping back through the exercise making cosmetic edits or rereading. Breathing deeply Jeff begins to let his mind wander, ponders imperfection, lets his flaws wrap around him and around him, lets images came as they may. He puts the pencil to paper and
    belfry walls... comes out. Belfry? what's a belfry? like a church thing? An image of monks on an endless staircase, unplacable yet terribly familiar, comes to mind. The image of them eternally ascending, the inescapable return, they are always walking, always returning...
                           they are always walking, always returning, each step identical to infinite steps before and to be recreated in infinite steps after, each monk identical to all the others; each one ascending with one descending, each one rising coupled with one falling, though, perhaps, it is just two monks we see, with their every position illustrated? every quantum of possibility collapsed into one image, of what do they think, to who do they chant? there is no thought and their chant is utter silence and a held breath, their cloaks waver not, their feet are without movement, for every step up occurs at once with a step down, every movement forward a movement back, there is no entrance and no exit, and we know not to what depths the courtyard descends, beside the pillbox domes the, the terra cotta shingles and under the...

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