The CEA Forum
Winter/Spring 2006: 35.1
The Garden at Night: Burnout & Breakdown in the Teaching Life. By Mary Rose O'Reilley. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2005.
by Yvonne Schultz, Mount Vernon Nazarene University
You don't have to look far to find college professors on the verge of burnout, blowout, breakdown. We know these people; they are our fellow professors, and they are us. Mary Rose O'Reilley knows them too. Generally, she's been there, and she doesn't want to be there again. But precisely, O'Reilley has been there, and she has learned to embrace what she repeatedly calls “the Dark Night of the Soul,” a place that can be seen as an opportunity “for spiritual progress” (13).
In this respect, The Garden at Night is about more than surviving the stressors of the workplace; it's about changing the teacher's view of the workplace so that the issues are less about battling through, embracing metaphors like “manning the barricades” (26), and more about thriving, “fostering the teaching mission; mentoring young professionals, creating a positive, recognizable, and communicable department culture” (27). The garden at night is when the slugs slime onto the eggplant leaves; the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, digesting death; the neighborhood cats arrive and yellow the hostas. The garden at night is also when the foliage on the tomatoes exhales, the peach peelings in the compost bin turn slowly to dirt, the dew dollops the daisies. In the same garden, on the same night, the gardener can see the oppression or the necessity of darkness very differently. Therefore, says O'Reilley, “[a]t the center of the Dark Night experience, we must inhabit the crystal sphere of paradox” (19). Drawing from Christian and Buddhist traditions, O'Reilley deftly cites Carmelite nun Constance Fitzgerald's understanding of the writings of John of the Cross as well as O'Reilley's Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Both traditions embrace paradox; both traditions recognize that impasse is necessary for one to break from circular, pointless thinking, for one to become derailed in order to lay new rails on which to travel.
If we are passionate about our teaching gardens during the soul's day, then we may carry that passion into the night. O'Reilley quotes from Constance Fitzgerald, “in which she connects the Dark Night experience to our deepest hopes for the life we are given: `We are affected by darkness where we are most involved and committed, and in what we love and care for most. Love makes us vulnerable…'” (24). These passions, O'Reilley says, “are the structures of meaning and sources of identity most typically assailed by whatever relentless universal processes draw us toward higher levels of integration and wisdom. Call this beneficient assault, for the moment, dark night of the soul ” (25). Throughout the text, she realigns the connections between darkness and the new life it is capable of producing.
Four chapters constitute the book, but it really begins with the prologue on contemplative pedagogy. This introductory section umbrellas the formal chapters that follow, reminding the reader “about living, as a teacher, what the spiritual traditions call a contemplative vocation” (viii). O'Reilley drives immediately to the heart of the ways that instruction is constructed: “[H]ow can we design a classroom that values connection and wholeness, where one spiritual presence interpenetrates another, be it of student and student, student and teacher, student and text? What would have to change?” (viii). The dually overt and underlying assumption is that students and teachers and, depending on your literary theory choice, texts, “might have a rich and authoritative inner life” (ix). That is, as teachers and students, writers and readers, we recognize the value of a spiritual life, regardless of the affiliations of the particular universities in which we work and study. “Allow some space and silence in your classroom and watch how everything changes,” intones O'Reilley; and we are reminded, by her and by our own reading, of Peter Elbow and expressivist pedagogy and of bell hooks' invocation of Thomas Merton to encourage writers “to make a lucid and conscious use of their freedom” (qtd. in Burnham 20).
The metaphors shift, mix, and double back on themselves in the first chapter, “Practicing the Koans of Professional Life” (How could they not—O'Reilley teaches literature?). In a particularly visual section, the author writes:
Teaching English in a liberal arts college can be like hauling yourself into a lifeboat with twenty-odd other freezing people, none of whom looks like Leonardo DiCaprio. You are going to be there a long time, because nobody is hiring you away to a dream job at, say, Bennington, and you will spend your collegial time hitting other desperate swimmers over the head with oars lest they try to rock your boat, and occasionally throwing other rowers back into the icy waters (these ritual actions are called hiring committees and tenure reviews)…. And you will be with these people until they figure out how to kill you. (22)
What matters, says O'Reilley, is “what metaphors we use to describe ourselves to ourselves. A lifeboat. A pod. A hive. A monastery. An ecosystem. A minefield” (26-27). How do these metaphors “facilitate or obstruct” (27) the work of the English departments in which we find so much of our identity? Answer these questions, she says, and hold an image in your mind “that will allow us the possibility of forgiving each other” (26).
We are drawn into the practice of mindfulness in Chapter Two, where the metaphor of “doing dishes to do dishes: some simple physical work that focuses the mind and pulls us into the present” is attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh (31). I think of the similarities with Carmelite Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God, in which he describes his efforts to discover “The Presence” even as he washes the dishes in the monastery kitchen (22), another connection between Buddhist and Christian thought. How do we be mindful, O'Reilley wonders, “when the mind is already too full” (32)? Practice, she says, practice washing the dishes or walking or sitting or body scanning. Above all, breathe. Every religious tradition, she reminds us, tells us to “pray always” (41). She highlights the paradox again, from Thich Nhat Hanh: Without a retreat from work, “it is simply not possible to do the work” (41).
The author moves back into the classroom in “Prophetic Witness and Mourning in School,” taking a very different turn with an argument for “a pedagogy of grief,” centering on the rhetorical relevance of “prophetic discourse,” as distinct from legal and mystical modes (56, 44). She throws her arms around breakdown as “a call to prophetic witness” and her contention that “spiritual practice keeps the muscles toned to endure the inconvenience of working for social change” (51). Especially in English classrooms, encompassing literature and composition, students may find a place to “act out a kind of spiritual quest” (52). The “persistent intensity of spiritual longing in the human soul,” she adds parenthetically, may be why there are any English majors at all, “given the state of the job market” (52).
Finally, O'Reilley turns to “Sustainable Teaching,” a lovely concept for those of us who adore Wendell Berry's connections between sustainable farming and the sustainable writing life, who dutifully feed our compost bins and daily practice our breathing and call it prayer. Here, she speaks to Elias Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom, which forms the center of the book's cover, which hangs on the wall in the hallway into our family room (an appropriate location), and which drew me to read this book in the first place (as well as its title). Moving from the no-DiCaprio-present lifeboat metaphor to a zoological one, O'Reilley wryly notes that Hicks painted the peaceable kingdom's lion to age with his own age: “young and svelte” and later, “obviously on his last legs. This lion will lie down with the lamb because the lion is toothless and exhausted. He has become, of necessity, a vegetarian” (63). She does not want to end up this way, but rather like the Velveteen Rabbit (though how having most of your hair loved off, having your eyes drop out, and being “loose in the joints and very shabby” is different from the lion's state, I'm not sure [Williams 17]). Her call to teachers of all ages is to “not leave teaching forever, but rather retire now and again to get your breath. Retreat, replenishment, nurturance…” (61).
In the section titled “The Trial of Idealism,” O'Reilley speaks specifically to her experience with and knowledge of “small denominational colleges” (63), discussing the “mixed motivations” (66) for those who choose to teach in such contexts: “[T]he person who thrives best at a small denominational college is the one who has her need for communal acceptance under control, who is realistically aware of the limits of institutional benevolence, who prioritizes her scholarly agenda, and who is willing to seek a professional community outside the cloistering walls of the department” (67). As throughout the rest of the book, small though it is, at 80 pages, much is left to unpack, particularly for those of us who fit the description.
So where's the critique ? Here's a little: the chapters are held together by the subtitle, but the book flows more like a collection of essays than a smoothly running river. I'd use each chapter differently, perhaps as handouts in four or five varied workshops, because their purposes range from pedagogy to philosophy to practice. And sometimes even the chapters are disjointed, a collage of thoughts, like magazine columns that have been pasted together with subtitles. But I don't care. I loved reading this book, thinking about its implications, discussing it with my colleagues. You might want to think about giving it to a friend. Or to yourself.
Burnham, Christopher. “Expressive Pedagogy: Practice/Theory, Theory/Practice.” A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. Ed. Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper, and Kurt Schick. New York: Oxford UP, 2001: 19-35.
Lawrence, Brother. The Practice of the Presence of God. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2004.
Williams, Margery. The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
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