Writing and Doom

That day’s Sinking Feeling Epiphany:

Every day is September.

(Can I still do this?)

The day after Labour Day — in Canada, it’s the first Monday of September — always loomed anxiously. For most of my adult life, it meant being back in a high school classroom, the Return of the Creature. From about the last week of August, the Creature Dreams would begin their annual limited engagement. (It’s an auspicious day, great things to teach or coach, but I can’t find my classroom/the gym, materials are a bizarro mess, and wait didn’t I have clothes on before? and this place looks vaguely familiar but why’s the ceiling getting so low and holy-cow-my-feet-are-stuck-in-what.) Teaching and coaching were performance arts, and so there was performance anxiety, more than 20 years of it, but mainly confined to the first Tuesday morning of the school year. I always got an adrenalizing dose of can I still do this? but I was unfailingly reassured about five minutes into period one: yeah, ‘course you can. You’re built for this. I am Creature. Hear me creach!

Maybe I’m just tired and lonely in this writing thing. In June, we were not only packing, finishing our teaching jobs, and preparing to leave China and our Chinese friends after five years, but I’d accepted a writing deadline: June 30.¹

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Jacob Riis (on perseverance and “pounding the rock”)

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

I had never heard of Jacob Riis (1849-1914) before my attention to all things San Antonio Spurs reached new heights during their NBA Finals series with the Miami Heat. (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, tired of the “typical, trite silly crap you see in locker rooms at all levels”, has long had Riis’s stonecutter quote displayed in the Spurs’ dressing room. I was puzzled when a microphone picked up “Coach Pop” imploring his team during a timeout to “keep pounding the rock!” This could have been basketball jargon for “keep dribbling the ball”, which was a strange thing for such a team-oriented coach to say. Now, suddenly millions of NBA fans know of Jacob Riis and his love for basketball  tireless dedication to social justice.)

Riis was a journalist, a muck-raker, an activist and a noted practitioner of the brand-new art of photography. Born in Denmark, he was a relentless advocate for immigrant rights and decent living conditions in New York. It was in the context of his activism on behalf of the “poor, huddled masses” that he made the above statement. The Spurs use it because they believe in the process of team-building, slowly and steadily. I think of it when trying to teach English, build community, educate for justice, find my mislaid abdominals and write and write. (What’s your rock?)