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I was walking back from class, a difficult one, because we just started talking about one of my favorite novels that is challenging, overwhelming for most of the students in my introduction to literature class. But I think we’ve made good progress, and I point them to a larger truth about literature – patterns matter. Starting to see the patterns is the first step to making sense of the work, any work, you are reading, and it can allow you to start making meaning, making connections, drawing larger conclusions.

I cross a student who is wearing a sweatshirt that says, “I CHOOSE TO BE HAPPY.”

There was no guarantee that the class would go as well as it did. I was teaching the novel for the first time, and it was a novel I knew well, almost too well, insofar as I could see all the ways the students would get lost, and all the ways I had learned over the years (and years) to find my way out of it. And there are still parts of the novel I struggle with, that I haven’t quite made any meaning from yet. I start with looking at what we know about the novel from the cover and other paratextual materials provided for us (blurb, author bio, cover image, copyright, genre, etc). And then I end up diving right into what we, or at least I, don’t know.

What is up with the fish?

In their comments and questions I asked them to post before class, a student brought up the fish, specifically the salmon the narrator cooks at the beginning. It had always bothered me, too, because obviously it meant something, and then I started seeing seafood everywhere in the book, at key moment, but I still didn’t know what it all meant. And so, I decided that we would try to make meaning of this repeated image, this pattern, together.

Start from what you don’t know rather than what you know.

So while the class went well, I still felt sad because that was one less face-to-face class with the students before I leave, one less chance to have these moments together. And I see the sweatshirt and I get angry. Any other day, it might not even register, but like recognizing patterns in literature, these moments are highly contextual and personal, and on another day, at another moment, we might not pick up on something that is key, making meaning in that moment, where other moments, meaning would be lost.

I think about my kids who are mourning the move, mid-year, and the fact that their mom is leaving them for a month. It is important that they are allowed to feel sad, to be angry, to be unhappy with their situation, while also excited and nervous and optimistic. I think about myself, struggling in this moment to be happy, because of the anxiety, the uncertainty, the long transition from one thing to another. I can be happy over there, but right now, right here, it’s hard.

I think about how in the past happiness, or rather, unhappiness wasn’t a choice but a state of being that lay on me like a heavy blanket, and while I chose to get help, I couldn’t choose to just simply be happy. One day, it came. And then another day, it went.

I think about how being forced to be happy all the time wore on my soul as a child, where my sadness, my confusion, my anxiety, my “moods” were signs of my lack of gratitude, but also signs of a deeper dysfunction that no one wanted to talk about or deal with or even acknowledge. Fake it until you make it, right? Just choose to be happy. Standing in the dark, just look at the bright side, even if it is blinding.

This time when I read the novel, I find all the melancholy buried in the playful passages, in the small stories, in the text. I try not to bring too much of the context into my reading, because I know how this larger story begins and ends, I know all of the external narrative to this narrative, which my students don’t have and it’s a career’s worth of work behind my reading of the text. But I still can find the sadness, because of my own sadness. In this moment in the text.

The book we are reading has the following dedication: “For everyone who would like to be someone else.” At the end of the book, the author comes to terms with the fact that he can’t escape who he is - “I search for the celebrated barrier that Basho was so happy to cross to take the narrow road that led to the interior.”

Sometimes I think we aren’t willing to cross any barriers, and we choose to be happy instead. Whatever that means. Instead, I keep reading, keep writing, keep teaching. 

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