This year demands work

“And now let us believe in a long year that is given to us, new, untouched, full of things that have never been, full of work that has never been done, full of tasks, claims, and demands; and let us see that we learn to take it without letting fall too much of what it has to bestow upon those who demand of it necessary, serious, and great things.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1892-1910

I went in to work today, the actual building and physical space. I have the rare privilege of being able to teach face to face with my first-year students once per week. I say that it’s a privilege because the classes are small enough that we can be in a classroom safely. The campus is almost empty, which is comforting in this time of COVID. I’m finding that I don’t even notice masks anymore. We’re just people, just a few people.

It’s a tradition in academia to attach news clippings, flyers and such to our doors. During the 2019-20 school year I posted a new poem every month. The last thing I posted was this excerpt from a letter Rilke wrote. It’s often shortened to, “And now let us believe in a a new year, full of things that have never been.”

I don’t think Rilke meant what we use him to mean: that the new year is full of joy and good things. Instead I think his emphasis would have been that each new year is full of work, work that always falls short, but that meets the demands of “necessary, serious, and great things.”

This new year, now an aging year, has been long indeed and has been filled with new demands. So much has fallen, at least in my life. But when I work, when I demand serious and great things, I begin to understand what Rilke means.

These new things have been so hard. The isolation, the fear, the masks—all things that hide us away like family secrets.

This week has felt very different to me than other weeks. It feels as if all of this—COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, political insanity, social distancing—is new. I wake up and the reality of it all hits me as I throw on shorts and a shirt that I’ve found on the floor by the bed and that I wore yesterday. Some days I don’t shower at all, some days not until 2 or 3 p.m. when I can’t stand myself any longer. I’ve stopped even trying to look put together for yet another Zoom meeting or even online classes.

The future is something that makes me anxious. I can’t think about the election or about another year stuck at home, ordering groceries from Instacart.

Instead, I’m in survival mode. How do I get through this day, this moment? Where can I find comfort? Have I watched everything on Netflix that’s worth watching? Will I abandon reading yet another book after 10 or 12 pages? Can I improve the percentage of wins I’m achieving in my favorite Solitaire game?

But going onto campus today reminded me that I must do work in order to discover what this year has to bestow on me.

On my face to face days—I meet two classes for 2 hours one time per week—I get up early and shower and put makeup on. I wear clothes that are hanging in my closet. I wear jewelry. I go over the plans for the classes in my mind. I eat breakfast and get in my car and drive to work. And when I get to work, I wring out of those 2 hours as much as I can. I look in the eyes of real people and have real conversation.

I am focused on these mornings, laser sharp, on facilitating an atmosphere of community for my students that I hope will carry them through the semester. I hear their problems. I try to help them solve those problems.

I watch as they begin to find connections with each other. I am touched by their openness, something, oddly, that these masks seem to make easier. We are hidden from each other, while also being present with each other.

Do you find it easier to tell your secrets in the dark? To tell someone something true without being seen? I do. Masks create this darkness in a way. They provide some safety, both physical and emotional.

I am doing work that has never been done. Not in this way, not by me. And the work feels necessary, serious, and great.

This long, new year still has much to teach me. But I must rise to it and work to keep it from falling into boredom and needless repetition.

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