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Reflections on Finding the Holy Grail
September 7, 2007 - 4:42pm


Today I welcome guest blogger Glen, a chum of the Churms from way back. He has done what I have so far failed to do—taken a ride on the tenure track—and I’m fascinated to see where it leads.


Your Oronte and I were fellow MFA students at Country Club University, a sun-drenched coastal college shaded by ficus trees and graced by emerald, sprinkler-fed lawns. Here, next to erupting water fountains and tanned students in Speedos and bikinis lined up for poolside Baywatch auditions, we shared drafts of our writing, drank beer next to the artificial lake, and speculated about who in our cohort would make it.

For several years after that I trudged the halls of academe as a Ph.D. student and wrote electrifying tracts about the prominence of addiction tropes in contemporary Scottish literature. I took a year off to join a boyfriend in Madrid and write my first novel, which ended up in the garbage can of a grimy suburban tapas bar, on top of leftover paella and gazpacho scrapings. Then, horrified by the amount of debt I had accumulated in pursuit of my artistic, scholarly, and romantic interests, I returned to the U.S. to teach high-school English. I also got up very early to finish my dissertation, a collection of personal essays, which as everyone in publishing knows is as marketable as a book of poetry. At last, after successfully defending, and after spending a transitional year as a visiting generalist at an obscure regional college, it finally happened to me. I found the Holy Grail.

In Chrétien de Troyes’s twelfth-century romance, Perceval: The Story of the Grail, a young, idealistic knight sets out to find adventure and meets a wounded king. Invited to stay at the king’s castle, Perceval is astonished by a procession of young men and women carrying magnificent objects, none more fabulous than the Holy Grail. According to De Troyes, this cup not only could heal all sicknesses and salve all human woes, it also was beautiful beyond all earthly objects:

[It] glowed
With so great a light that the candles
Suddenly seemed to grow dim...
[It] was made of the purest gold,
Studded with jewels of every
Kind, the richest and most costly…

Where Perceval and Lancelot go, there too go I. Where Perceval, by way of earning his right to encounter the grail, had to endure other Arthurian knights’ taunts, prevail in mortal combat with the Red Knight, and rescue a princess from a castle under siege by pirates, I merely had to face creative writing job search committees in bland MLA hotel rooms, crisscross the North American continent on redeye flights to assorted snow-covered campuses, and trudge from dean to provost in choking tie, scratchy suit jacket, and blister-producing new shoes.

And where Perceval dined with his melancholy Fisher King in a hilltop castle, I, courtesy of Mountain View Liberal Arts College, joined future colleagues for steak and baked potatoes in the only open bar in a three-stoplight college town in the Appalachians. Here, I repeated the heraldic oaths articulated in my teaching philosophy, cover letter and sample syllabi: If allowed a seat at the Round, Square or Oblong Tables of Mountain View College, I would dedicate my life to rescuing undergraduates in distress.

At last, as we tossed back frosted mugs of Heineken, it came into view—a golden glint in the eye of the Director; a glittering jewel of a smile by a senior faculty member who let on that he thought I had done a “fabulous job.” And forty-eight hours later, in my cluttered visiting generalist’s office, a phone call from the Mountain View Dean prompted the appearance on my scratched and chipped office desk of the real, resplendent, magnificent Holy Grail. Oh lambent, glorious chalice!

Six months have passed, and I’m in grail country, having spent $2,500 of my new employer’s money to move my earthly belongings, and having encamped in a rent-free dormitory apartment. I’ve spent the past “hell week”—so named for its ceremonies, speeches, workshops, orientations and meetings—being introduced as the new Assistant Professor of Creative Nonfiction. I have partaken in a convocation ritual so startlingly medieval that Perceval would have felt at home in it: Robed faculty, clapping for the incoming freshmen, and a grave gray-haired marshal banging a jeweled scepter on a stage to launch the academic year. And many more times than I could begin to count, I have been welcomed by administrators to Mountain View College, to this “special, caring community of teachers and learners,” this “lovely area, with its woods, waterfalls, and farmers’ markets,” and this “top tier liberal arts college, capable of competing with the best educational institutions in the nation.”

Far be it from me to look too closely under the rim of a golden goblet and find its chips and stains: The miniscule town that closes at 5 p.m., with not a cup of coffee or a slice of pizza to be had thereafter. The summer Saturdays when the only cultural activity within a fifty-mile radius is cowpat bingo in the park of the neighboring village. The gatherings in which feuding faculty members spend hours attacking each other over whether new curricular guidelines should “describe” or “explain.” The Appalachian laws that mandate separate stores—miles apart, in the case of my bucolic county—to sell beer, wine, and cigarettes.

No, not for me to complain about such annoyances, especially not since this particular holy grail in question was offered to me—or so I still can’t help feeling—as something of a gift. I do not have an agent or a book contract—basic entrance qualifications for many jobs like these. My Ph.D., while from a prestigious program, focused on an area unrelated to the one in which I will now be teaching.

I consider myself only moderately well read; when new colleagues ask whether I’ve read This Canonical Memoir or “That Eminently Talked-About Personal Essay,” I am one of those transparent and rather sad people who say, “Yes, long ago, but I don’t remember much of it.” My work habits are OK but nothing stellar; I have a good rapport with students, but then so does my colleague’s enormous brown Mastiff. In short, I feel unworthy, unable to shake the feeling that the only reason I was hired was because of my lilting South African accent.

Yet Perceval, too, had his flaws. His pre-chalice gaffes included forcible kissing of a lone damsel, on account of his having misunderstood his mother’s advice to aid all ladies in need. (I fear if I tried anything like that with any of the strapping young men lifting weights in the campus Fitness Center, my Sacred Goblet would turn into a prompt invitation to pack up my car, hand back my office keys, and drive back down the highway from whence I came). And even when the Hallowed Chalice itself appeared in front of him, Perceval pretty much botched the crucial occasion: Following the advice of the gentleman Gornemant to not be too talkative, he declined to ask the Fisher King about the grail. Unbeknown to him, the Holy Grail required a newcomer’s curiosity to unlock its healing powers; ignored, treated like just another wooden beaker or porcelain serving dish, the grail, damsel-like, declined to offer its graces and kindnesses, and the Fisher-King, like some put-upon professor flunking his third-year review, was cast back out into the world to try to do his best under rather grim circumstances.

So it goes, I have concluded, with Holy Grails. Mesmerizing from afar, they seem much more flawed and ordinary up close. To work their magic they require a great deal of attention, and plenty of the right words, at the right moment, to the right people. Without these careful efforts, grails have a habit of vanishing back into the kitchen of the castle, and, once lost, they are almost impossible to retrieve. Perceval, who spent the rest of his life searching fruitlessly for that venerated and shining vessel, learned this the hard way.


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