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Dictums of Dr. Drake

August 11, 2010 6 comments

Robert Young Drake Jr.

I stumbled into Dr. Drake’s class kinda like the way I stumbled into college. While my friends were applying for grants and scholarships, I was busy dreaming of some great venture, some great project, some great something…or some great something else.

Then suddenly I was there. Sitting at freshman orientation for the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I didn’t worry too much about what to study. As my dad would tell me, “What’s important is that you finish what you start. Study anything you want just finish the degree.”

My dad had just returned from the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. At one point, he shared a helicopter ride with Scott Hamilton’s dad. Dr. Hamilton, a college professor, told my dad that “if a young man is not sure what to study in school, he should learn how to communicate. If you can write and speak well, you can do about anything.”

My dad passed on that advice. That sounded good enough for me, so I ended up studying Creative Writing and Speech Communication at UT. Almost thirty years later I can thank Dr. Hamilton for helping launch me on the adventure of learning to speak.

Now where was I? Oh yes, stumbling into Dr. Drake’s Advanced Creative Writing class wearing one black shoe and one red shoe. For some reason, two different colored shoes made perfect sense in the 80s. As I sank down into my seat, I noticed that the man standing at the front of the class was wearing a linen suit. He looked and sounded like he stepped right out of nineteenth century Southern aristocracy.

Robert Young Drake Jr. stood before us as a living testimony of another time, another world. An old Southern sophistication that was and is vanishing under concrete Interstates, concrete shopping malls and concrete lives. Listening to him talk was like sitting on a big porch during the late afternoon, sipping on lemonade and swapping stories.

His slow drawl, devilish wit, and penchant for telling stories captivated us half-dazed students who stumbled toward degrees and possible oblivion. On the first day of class, he handed out no syllabi, no reading lists, and he gave no expectations for what was ahead.

Someone raised his hand. “What’s your policy on cutting class?”

“I don’t have a policy. Don’t cut class.”

Another hand. Another question. “How do you figure our grades?”

“Do what I say and you’ll come through with flying colors.”

One day he asked if anyone in the class had ever read Charles Dickens. I nodded yes.

“What did you read Mr. Floyd?”

“Well, I started ‘Tale of Two Cities,’ but I didn’t finish it.”

“What? You didn’t finish. Oh Mr. Floyd that is a grievous sin. You must go home and pray without ceasing.”

Another day he read a story aloud, and asked us what was the main theme of the story. Someone shouted out, “Compassion.”

“Oh my. I simply hate that word. The word compassion is so over used. I think people say it when they don’t really know what a story is about.”

This was the first class I had ever attended where the professor diced our answers to pieces and never hesitated to humiliate. Of course, he said everything with that slow drawl and that slight grin.

One student made the unfortunate mistake of cutting class. Next class he reappeared.

“Well, Mr. Jones I see you’ve decided to stay at the University after all. I assumed that when you failed to come to class you had left for some pressing reason. But here you are in our midst once again.”

Looking around to all the rest us he continued, “It amazes me that people will pay good money for a University education and then fail to attend the classes. That makes no sense whatsoever.” After about five minutes of a public tongue lashing, he finally released Mr. Jones from shaming and started the class.

Some people would drop Dr. Drake’s class but no one was bold enough to cut his class.

For the next three months us stumbling students sat up wide awake with holy fear: never sure if we might be subject to a public trial on the spur of the moment. At the same time, most of us loved this class and this professor. He spoke and taught and challenged us in ways we’d never been challenged.

He mocked our simplistic assumptions and forced us to think and speak and write better. Sometimes he’d say, “People ask me if I ever see talented writers in these classes. I reply that it’s not a matter of talent. It’s a matter of work, of discipline. A good writer writes and writes and writes.”

Then he might add, “Show me a great writer and I’ll show you a great reader. If you want to write, you must learn to read.”

“The most important thing a parent can teach their child is how to read. I don’t care if the child reads comic books or Mad magazine. If the love of reading captures their soul, they’ll read and read and read. And the reading will teach them to speak.”

Religion showed in one person’s story and Dr. Drake began discussing his own faith. “Of course, I believe in purgatory. I experience it every Sunday morning sitting on a hard wooden pew during the church service. After of lifetime of such suffering, God must surely allow me into heaven.”

Another day, he decided to introduce grammar into our conversation. “There are no rules.”

“Write what’s in your heart. Discover your voice. Grammar is your servant not your master. It may help you say what you need to say more clearly, but never let it confine you from saying what you must say.”

He taught me that writing is not about fame, not about fortune. Most writers are poor. Writing is about finding and speaking my voice. It is the discipline of listening and speaking and learning to articulate. He taught me to read.

On the last day of class, he gave each of us a blessing. As he turned toward me he said, “Mr. Floyd, my hope and prayer for you is that one day by God’s grace you’ll actually finish a Charles Dickens novel.” The class burst out laughing. I laughed.

And in a strange twist of irony. One day I did read Dickens and fell in love with his words, his characters, his world. And I am always haunted by the cry for justice that echoes all through Dickens.

Dr. Drake died almost ten years ago. And sadly, I never expressed my deep appreciation for his influence on my life. It took years for me to even realize the deep and resounding impact of this thoughtful provocateur. Yet, I still find myself quoting him and listening to him and responding to him.

I continue to write. I continue to read. I continue to learn.

Dr. Drake freed me from the oppressive weight of wanting to be recognized. He freed me to a life of learning how to speak…how give voice to one moment in time..how to discover that articulate word. As Czeslaw Milosz once wrote,

“To find my home in one sentence, concise, as if hammered in metal. Not to enchant anybody. Not to earn a lasting name in posterity. An unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness.”

Dr. Drake spent his life teaching students to pound that one sentence into this fleeting world of glory. And for that I am forever grateful.

Friend of Fools

May 15, 2007 Leave a comment

Much like a zen master, G.K. Chesterton reminds me where to turn for mentors:

Distribute to dignified people and the capable people and the highly businesslike people among all the situations which their ambition or their innate corruption may demand, but keep close to your heart, keep deep in your inner councils the absurd people; let the clever people pretend to govern you, let the unimpeachable people pretend to advise you, but lets the fools alone influence you; let the laughable peope whose faults you see and understand be the only people who are really inside your life, who really come near you or accompany you on your lonely march towards the last impossibility.

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Diversions to Death – Pascal

February 9, 2007 3 comments

Blaise PascalHere’s a thought worth consideration from Pascal

The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves, and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us on to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us, gradually and without ever adverting to it, to death.

Man is broken

December 8, 2006 Leave a comment

Here’s neat little quote that Jimmy posted on the kidney transplant list:

Man is broken. He lives by mending.
The grace of God is the glue.
Eugene O’Neill

Makes me think of a Dylan tune. I hope we’re all sticky today (and mend everything we touch).

Disciplining our Watchful Eye

November 27, 2006 1 comment

During Advent, I am focusing on the idea of surprise. And this quote spoke to me about that in some way. Thought someone might enjoy:

“The need for discipline is the same need for watchfulness, for readiness, as in the parable. The ones who wait for the Lord must have oil in their lamps and the lamps must be trimmed. …[Monastic discipline] implies  cultivation of certain inner conditions of awareness, of openness, of readiness for the new and the unexpected.”
Thomas Merton

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Getting Along with People

November 27, 2006 Leave a comment

Here’s a good quote to keep in mind when you’re mixing with way too many folks during the holidays:

“If you put up with yourself, why not put up with everybody else?”

Guigi I, Meditations 

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Integrating the Subjective and Objective

November 9, 2006 3 comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about integration vs dis-integration. And then I saw this quote from Pope Benedict that explores this theme in relation to objective vs subjective knowledge:

“At the roots of being a Christian, there is no ethical decision or lofty idea, … but a meeting with the person of Jesus Christ,” said Benedict XVI. “The fruitfulness of this meeting is apparent … also in today’s human and cultural context,” he added, using the example of mathematics, a human creation in which the “correlation between its structures and the structures of the universe … excites our admiration and poses a great question. It implies that the universe itself is structured in an intelligent fashion, in such a way that there exists a profound correspondence between our subjective reason and the objective reason of nature. It is, then, inevitable that we should ask ourselves if there is not a single original intelligence that is the common source of both the one and the other….This overturns the tendency to grant primacy to the irrational, chance and necessity.”

via Center for Science and Culture

Thomas Merton and the Election

November 8, 2006 Leave a comment

The Merton Center for Contemplation sent out this wonderful quote today that fits perfect for our political frenzy.

“Meditation does not necessarily give us a privileged insight into the meaning of isolated historical events. These can remain for the Christian as much of an agonizing mystery as they do for anyone else. But for us the mystery contains, within its own darkness and its own silences, a presence and a meaning which we apprehend without fully understanding them. And by this spiritual contact, this act of faith, we are ourselves properly situated in the events around us, even though we may not quite see where they are going.

One thing is certain: the humility of faith, if it is followed by the proper consequences—by the acceptance of the work and sacrifice demanded by our providential task—will do far more to launch us into the full current of historical reality than the pompous rationalizations of politicians who think they are somehow the directors and manipulators of history. Politicians may indeed make history, but the meaning of what they are making turns out, inexorably, to have been something in a language they will never understand, which contradicts their own programs and turns all their achievements into an absurd parody of their promises and ideals.

Of course, it is true that religion on a superficial level, religion that is untrue to itself and God, easily comes to serve as the “opium of the people.” And this takes place whenever religion and prayer invoke the name of God for reasons and ends that have nothing to do with Him. When religion becomes a mere artificial façade to justify a social or economic system—when religion hands over its rites and language completely to the political propagandist, and when prayer becomes the vehicle for a purely secular ideological program, then religion does tend to become an opiate. It deadens the spirit enough to permit the substitution of a superficial fiction and mythology for the truth of life. And this brings about the alienation of the believer, so that his religious zeal becomes political fanaticism. His faith in God, while preserving its traditional formulas, becomes in fact faith in his own nation, class or race. His ethic ceases to be the law of God and love, and becomes the law of might-makes-right:  established privilege justifies everything. God is the status quo.”
Thomas Merton

From Contemplative Prayer. New York: Doubleday, 1996 edition

 

Play Time

November 7, 2006 Leave a comment

Here’s a nice little quote for the day:

“…play in its purest form is not entertainment, or business, or emotional escape, but an entry into sacred space. It suspends the world about us, perhaps for deeper or more joyful entry into that world. It is an engagement, often light-hearted enough, with the mystery of being.”

Anthony Esolen (with attribution to Johan Huizinga)

The role of play in my spiritual walk has been fundamental. In fact, the first retreat I ever led was called Holy Play. Thanks Anthony.

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Dancing in the midst of the fire

November 6, 2006 2 comments

Suresh offers a nice reminder today:

Are you living? Is there a dance in your life? Are you moving, growing, risking, taking the challenges of dangerous paths? In the acceptance of the danger, in the acceptance that anything can happen any moment, life comes to its best, to its fullest.

His irreverent spirituality reminds me of Hafiz . As the wheels of E-Commerce are spinning around me, I am spinning inwardly in a dance before my Creator like a whirling dervish.

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