A Farewell to Tragedy
Yesterday morning I read my last exams and papers for the spring semester and posted my grades. I had taken the train in for a 9am exam and, as I walked down a cold and rainy JFK Boulevard, I thought about how, next fall semester, I'll only have to go in early twice a week, Tuesday and Friday, as I've jammed scheduled four classes in a row on those two days. I'll still have some other teaching and meetings with students and work to do on the other three days, but the bulk of my teaching will be from 8am – 2.15pm on those two days.
It's been a very intense semester, with more teaching than usual because I had multiple sections of two of the same classes—meaning that (let me add it up) I had: 2 Elementary Latin classes, Intermediate Latin, Women in Antiquity, Virgil, Ancient Greece and Greece Today (the travel course to Greece—we didn't meet every week, but a few times over the course of the semester), 2 Honors Research Methods classes. These add up to a whopping 8 classes, not to mention 1 extra session for the student who could only take Honors Research Methods on Friday. Needless to say, I need to teach a little less. I'm the only Classics (Latin and ancient Greek) professor at my (small) college, so if students are majoring in Classics, I have to offer enough courses so they'll have enough credits.
Also needless to say, I haven't been able to get much done this semester on a project I started last fall, a translation of the ancient Roman Seneca's tragedy, Phaedra. I did about 200 lines by February; lost most of it when Charlie, um, got a little 'active' with the laptop resulting in a Genius Bar jaunt for said machinery; found an earlier printed-out draft; started typing that in. Yes, I should have saved the file elsewhere than on the hard drive and I promptly did so with the new version. But I also started to think that it was a bit providential than version 1.0 got 'lost' as I didn't really like it.
And then, seeing how little I'd been inclined to keep working at it, I started to think, maybe I really don't want to translate Seneca.
I hadn't chosen this author or his plays. An editor had mentioned to me that his publisher was looking for a translation of some of Seneca's tragedies and I thought, why not have a go at it. I had proposed a translation of the Roman poet Virgil's Eclogues, ten pastoral poems—poems about poetry, shepherds, the countryside–and been informed, there's no market for such pastoral poetry. I suggested adding a translation of the Idylls of the Hellenistic poet, Theokritos, only to learn that there is even less of a market for these poems, and and one does want to get one's work published.
So, I tried Seneca.
But, having worked on his play for several months, I have concluded, I don't have an affinity for his writing; for the literature of the early (political intrigue- and violence-filled) Roman empire. Seneca's tragedies are known for being, indeed, violent, and gory, and really bloody. I'm good with reading them and, too, teaching them, but I couldn't get his Latin and, what may I say, his sensibility into my head. Whereas, I walk around with lines of Virgil in my head and, too, of the late Republic poet Catullus' poetry. And so I wrote to the editor yesterday and learned that someone else is submitting a proposal for the Seneca tragedies. Then I went to Virgil's Eclogue 9 and did the first line, at which point Charlie came down the stairs and asked for a walk.
It was past 6pm: After I'd picked him up from a good day at school, he'd come home to use the computer and then betaken himself off to his room. As it was pouring and grey, this was a good plan. It was lightly raining and then drizzling at the start of our walk. We moved at a brisk pace, Charlie walking in front and cheerful, pausing only when a puddle covered all the sidewalk; I hurried in front and walked on the grass on the edge of the sidewalk, and Charlie followed suit. A strong breeze was blowing the clouds away as we neared home, where Charlie settled on the blue couch with chicken lo mein. After about an hour and a half, he was ready to walk again, and out he and Jim went in their matching sweatshirts, against the wind.
On my earlier walk with Charlie—watching him run or pause to spin around (he sometimes does this at a transitional moment—turning a corner, crossing an intersection); hearing him say strings of words of things and people he likes ('Mom Gong Gong'; 'Yes Blake Lou Tara Julie')—I felt at ease, to see him so, yes, peaceful-easy. I could see people waiting at the stoplights looking at him, at us. I'll imagine that some might be thinking, good Lord, that kid is almost a foot taller than his mother and he can barely talk, what a shame.
Or even, what a tragedy he's like that.
But one thing I very much have never thought about Charlie and our admittedly different, unexpected, and possibly strange life in Autismland, is that it's a tragedy. That Charlie's a tragedy, that his being autistic is a tragedy. Charlie is, as he is. Difficult things, painful things—suffering and awful things—have happened to him; things I would hope others don't have to live through because some of them have been altogether gut- and heart-wrenching, and physically, mentally, and spiritually taxing. Aeschylus in the Agememnon writes that one pathê mathôn, one 'learns by suffering': Yes, we have and I suspect we will much more.
Life, autism, and life with autism are still not and never a tragedy for us. These things happening are tragedies. And maybe life with autism is tragic for other families; I'm not here to judge, but to write ours and Charlie's experience. And our experience has involved loss and sadness and even something like melancholy, something like bittersweet. 'Bittersweet' is a word I keep returning to, in writing about life with Charlie and, for me, that word captures how any day or moment feels, an amalgam of happy times and sometimes dreadful ones, of fierce delight on seeing Charlie riding that bike down the street and a fleeting stab of worry on thinking, who's going to ride with him when we aren't here to anymore?
The poetry that captures this sense of loss and loss-tinged reflection for an idealized, simpler way of life that one no longer has, is pastoral poetry, especially its subgroup of elegy, which 'expresses the poet's grief at the loss of a friend or an important person.' Not that I entirely 'mourn' what life was long 'pre-Charlie' and 'pre-autism.' I frankly think our life with Charlie—these past 13 years—have been the best ever. I know Jim thinks the same.
As for pastoral poetry—in case I've confused you with this overly long post or been too oblique—I'll have more to say quo uia ducit, wherever the road takes us and things in its wake.