A couple of days ago I went to the Fire Department main office to collect our official report on the blaze that destroyed our house, threw our lives into disarray, and killed our beloved dog. When I got to the car, I opened the envelop and read what it had to say; although I am entirely unsure what I wanted it to say, the stark white page with just a few brief lines outlining the most bare of facts was not it. I stared at it with the same blank expression that it stared back at me with. I folded it up and sat it down – here, in these few facts (day, time, address, home owner’s name) was absolutely nothing of what actually happened.
People have often said that all my classes are the same, that whether I am teaching Intro, Creative Writing or Survey the intent within in them is basically the same: to ask hard questions, to let truth be the slippery thing that it is, to never settle, as Tennyson said, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. I find, along with William Carlos Williams, that there “are no ideas but in things”, that our fleeting notions and even epistemological stances are nothing more than the way we relate to the objects, people and circumstances that make up the sounds, tastes, sights and feelings that each day brings. As such, my classes are never about abstract ideas, never rest on theory, and certainly do not take ‘facts’ as any kind of indication of ‘truth’.
In my hands was case in point. As I sat there, maybe sitting still for the first time in weeks, with the envelope on my lap, I thought of how I had wanted the report to be a poem, a lament to our lost dog. I wanted it to say how sorry the fire fighters were that they couldn’t get there fast enough but that they tried so very hard to fight a beast that was just too much for them. I wanted it to say that kids go through this and that hard as it is, they would make it and everything would be ok one day, and I wanted it to say that while our new house was now just a thought and a dream one day it would be real and it would be our home and it would be safe and it would hold new memories and and and…
That would have been the truth. The truth is that a house is not, as George Carlin once said, “a place to put your stuff”, but is a repository for all the stories that you write as a family. And a dog is decidedly not just an animal; it is your friend and your daughter and your sister. But you guys know that. Do you know how I know that? It’s in your eyes. It’s in all of the eyes that have looked at us and asked, “are you ok? Do you need help?” It’s in arms that have been extended to us and in homes that have been opened. It’s in phone calls and the sincere, heartfelt sound of voice filled with concern. It’s in jars of soup left in the faculty lounge (thanks Karen R.) and in money raised (thanks Gayle Mac) and in letters and letters and letters and fundraisers (thanks Trudy and Troy) and folks organizing for things to be brought to us – and in all of the small gestures of community and kindness.
An old friend of mine once said to me that I shouldn’t love any university because it can’t love me back and while I take that advice for what it is, you can love its people and, in the end, as there are no ideas but in things, there is no university without its people. I won’t say that this has been easy because it hasn’t – many tears have been shed, nights spent sleepless, and classes that weren’t as well prepared as they could have been – but you have all made it so very much easier. For that I thank you with all my heart. If ever you need anything, you know where to come. I am one of the people, the people who are burned and rise and learn that people are good and true and helpful. And I am here for you too.