As part of my teaching life over the past dozen years, I’ve gathered with between ten and fifteen undergraduate students twice a week to talk. What we talk about depends somewhat on the subject of the course: the essays of the writer Zadie Smith, say, or the life and work of James Baldwin. I often organize courses about food. Classrooms sometimes have views of the courtyard where other students, nowadays prohibited from smoking, still gather. Other classrooms look onto hallways, where students and teachers pass by, looking in on our conversations. Once, when I was teaching Baldwin over a summer session, we met in Paris, sometimes in magnificent French gardens, other times in the cafes where our subject sat and wrote and talked, himself.
Admirers all, my students have often seen Baldwin, in his cultural criticism, as a sort of anthropologist (Smith, too), in the obsolete sense we find in the Oxford English Dictionary, studying “the human organism, conceived of as a union of body and soul.” Baldwin inspires students into difficult conversations about race and sexuality and American history, where the fact that we are such human organisms becomes hard for them to deny: “We could find no way out of our common trouble,” he writes of an encounter with a white taxi driver, “for we had been forbidden—and on pain of death—to trust, or to use, our common humanity, that confrontation and acceptance which is all that can save another human being.” We have to talk, he seems to say—or else.
I’m familiar with the dread this phrase can conjure in a person. In my own life, “We have to talk” has been followed by any number of expressions of decisiveness: “You’re grounded.” “Who is she?” “It’s over.” “He’s dying.” “She’s dead.”
But through talking, both in the classroom and out, and through listening, I’ve also come to understand that, despite my own defensiveness, not everyone’s a scold or an accuser, not everything’s been decided, and that forgiveness and forbearance can withstand most bad news.
I spent most of the summer 2019 traveling through the West, beginning with a few weeks working with a farmer in the Gulf Islands between Vancouver and mainland British Columbia. From the farm, in late-July, I traveled with my wife and son to visit friends, the writers Debra Gwartney and Barry Lopez, in Central Oregon. Debra led us in kayaks over Clear Lake, and took us to hike the McKenzie River National Recreation Trail until we reached Tamolitch Falls and the Blue Pool, where the McKenzie emerges after flowing three miles underground. Along the way, between periods of idle silence or busy concentration, we talked, often about books and matters of health and family—Barry, who has cancer and who regretted staying behind, is doing the best he can, he says, in the circumstances—a little about the cultivation and uses of marijuana.
The evening after we returned from Clear Lake, Barry made what we were there to do—what we all might be here to do, it seemed—more explicit. Making my way from the car to return his water shoes and lifejacket, he greeted me in the doorway to the mudroom and said, “We have to talk.”
With Barry, nothing had been decided. No one was grounded. No one new was dead. We just had to talk. So, when Debra and my wife, Kate, joined us on the guest house’s deck, we talked again. We talked about books, and matters of family and health, fermentation, politics, Barry’s fifty years on the McKenzie, and the way he’s preserved the forests. We had our differences, and still did when we left that conversation, though perhaps they were different differences than when we’d begun. What mattered in that moment was the invitation, the fragile awareness, I think, that we are human organisms, unions of body and soul, and that confrontation and acceptance are what we owe one other, what can save us from being torn apart.
Since returning from that trip, I’ve started drawing clearer attention in my teaching to what our time together in the classroom means, or what it looks like relative to the rest of my students’ lives, their complaints that “there’s no community here,” in New York City’s anonymous West Village. When we’re gathered in the classroom, and particularly in the liberal arts classroom, we form communities. It’s our job to bring the value of talking and listening to bear, uncomfortable as that sometimes can be. When we read and then come to talk about race and sexuality and politics and the climate, we’re also agreeing—at least at some level—that we must confront each other, face to face, to save one another, body and soul.
I’m putting these thoughts down in the days before I send many of my students to scatter back across the country, around the globe, to rejoin their families for a season of winter holidays, to tables where the things we discuss in class are often, well, off the table. Politics, race, and sexuality, the body and the soul. I’m familiar with the dread. Faced with silences, many of them, and many in their families, will retreat into their phones, quite possibly right there at the dinner table. (In other eras we’ve retreated just the same, though into other devices.) The differences we face, within our families, in our classrooms, as citizens, may feel like too much to bear.
But they are not. They cannot be. Our differences may be our trouble, but they are our common trouble.
We will have read a lot—Baldwin, Smith, Lopez—in the months these young people have spent away from home, and if we’ve done our jobs as teachers, this reading, and this community, will have changed them. Encouraged forbearance and forgiveness, made them stronger. Likewise, their families—your families—will have undergone their own changes. Perhaps that means less scolding and accusation and more acceptance and the recognition of new adults. The differences we face may feel bigger than ever, and not all our differences are generational, but when I send them away to confront their homes, your homes, this season, I hope the one lesson they’ll take with them is the invitation I was confronted with this summer, the invitation they’ll extend, where the only thing that’s decided beforehand is that we have to talk. That is, you have to talk.