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Circle Stories

Anne Dalke's picture

While y'all were writing your essays about "home" last Sunday afternoon...

I was wandering around the home I left 45 (gasp!) years ago, and have more recently returned to (see Riva Lehrer's Circle Stories. also bell hooks). We were looking for where we might locate a well, so that we can fence the cattle out of the creek where they have watered for 65 years (keeping them from wearing down the stream banks, and also keeping their shit from going downstream....and as my father says, it used to be you wanted to buy property with running water on it. Now it's a liability!)

Since you number 11, I’m going to add my story of home here, and so make us 12 (a much more handibly divisible number…). It’s actually an excerpt taken from my 2002 book of Bryn Mawr teaching stories, Teaching to Learn/Learning to Teach....

I would go in to my grandmother early in the morning when she’d slept over. Slipping up to the side of her bed, book in hand, I asked her to read to me. She always said “yes.” (Did she never say “no”? Did she sometimes want to?)

I was a child who loved to read. Where there was no reading culture.

I was raised in a small town in northwestern Virginia; my family and their friends were housewives, farmers, small businessmen. Not drawn to the kinds of work they did--in part as an escape from that sort of labor—I read voraciously. Books gave me some understanding of the world I lived in; they also served as entry into other, larger worlds than the one we inhabited.

My family were conscientious people, but the limits of their concern and compassion were clearly marked. They attended faithfully, extensively, to those they knew, those like themselves. Our warm and caring community had an outside, sharply drawn….

I am a cheerleader. The squad hosts a party for the football team in my home. The next season, we want to have one for the basketball players, some of whom are black—did I mention that we are white? My father refuses. So do the fathers of the other white girls. Socializing leads to dating; dating leads to marriage. The folly of mixing the races. Quotes about breeding (racehorses, I think).

How do I know this is wrong? Where does this knowledge come from?

We host the party in the school cafeteria. The girls’ team asks why we haven’t had one for them as well. I see the racism clearly then. Not yet the sexism.

What enables my understanding? What marks its boundaries?

I leave home in the summer of 1968 as an exchange student to the small city of Schleswig in northern Germany. The family who takes me in asks lots of questions—about Methodists, Republicans, Americans, what “we” think of the work of Martin Luther King. Their queries lead me to re-examine much I have never questioned before. This may have been when doubt—corrosive, liberating—takes hold. And never ends.

College next. Freshman writing. We’re reading a Hemingway short story; the prof is criticizing the staccato dialogue between husband and wife. When I defend it as appropriate to this exchange, Professor Fehrenbach responds, “ALL of Hemingway’s characters talk that way.” And the world suddenly opens up for me into a maze of texts. I realize that, to speak with authority about this one story, I need to read them all.

And so I become an English major, and begin to read sort of conversationally, sort of systematically, as each text leads me into the others which inform it.

There is another impulse. I am in love with a poet.  I become an English major so I can talk with him. I have no idea what I think, what to look for, how to “read” the poems he gives me, how to answer the questions he asks. This is English major as entry into relationship.

But after a year or two, I become impatient with the structure, the tedium of studying what others think I should know….

I quit, marry the poet, get a job. Try reading on my own for a few years. But I keep falling asleep, and begin to realize how much I need the dialogue of the classroom, the context of a conversation. Looking for someone to talk to, I go back to college.

But I develop a growing impatience with grandstanding, with anyone who talks too much, for to long, who doesn’t invite a dialogue.

Does telling my own stories this way invite dialogue? Or close it off?

Linda Kauffman insists that the testimony of personal experience is a way of muzzling dissent: “difficult to resist in the temptation to view the personal as inherently paradigmatic…It makes us see similarity where in fact there are only…irresolvable, irreconcilable differences.” (“The Long Goodbye: Against Personal Testimony”)

This is experience as conversation stopper; when we treat what we know experientially as privileged, believing that knowledge rooted in experience is unassailable. What authority am I claiming by telling these tales? What conversations am I shutting down?

My husband and I move to Philadelphia; he begins law school at Penn. I work as a secretary in the financial aid office. Am bored. Take a graduate course (free to employees): Faulkner and James. Wonderful weeknights, reading on the sofa. Wonderful weekend afternoons, writing papers.

I apply to the graduate program in English; get in; go. At one of those early, scary parties, I tell the chairman about my class with Barbara Herrnstein Smith. He mishears me--thinks I’ve punned her middle name as “Hermeneutics”—and laughs heartily. I have no idea what hermeneutics ARE, and am embarrassed, at having gotten credit for a joke I 1) have not made and 2) worse—do not understand.

Credit for jokes—this may be emblematic of the anxieties of graduate work.

There are many pleasures, too: reading to hear stories I haven’t heart. Teaching and inviting others to do the same: listening to the tales of those who have been silent.

But, slowly, the work comes to seem arid, unrelated to the questions I am asking about the patterns of my life. My mother-in-law is having a nervous breakdown, my cousins begin having children. I want to attend to the old; I want to care for the young.

What do my studies have to do with these wants, these needs?

The classes don’t interest me. They don’t seem to interest the professors, either. A professor begins a Melville seminar by asking, “Is this the book with Long John in it?” We grad students work up a riff: “Is This the Book about he Whale?”

What do these men have to teach ne?

At the end of the first year, I drop out of school, start working as a secretary in the English Department. I am aghast to see how focus there is on hierarchies, gate-keeping, one-upmanship….

It seems paradoxical to me that English professors could be inhumane. I do not yet understand how the pursuit of excellence and mastery in a discipline fosters such behavior…..

I take a year off but then return to graduate school. What draws me back? Something that lasts: a desire to keep on learning.

In doing so, I follow Gayatri Spivak, prodded to “think about he danger of what is useful…the critique of things…without which we cannot live…the persistent critique of what one must inhabit.” (Outside in the Teaching Machine)

Larry Ziff passes through the English Department at Penn, opens up my reading of literature into a reading of history, makes the field seem much larger. He names my work women’s studies. I’m surprised by the category, haven’t conceptualized it that way. Didn’t know that such a field exists.

I am awarded a Mellon Fellowship, go to the reception, start up a conversation. Get in over my depth. Feel my own silence. As dumbness.

I’m writing my dissertation. Soon find myself bored, again, with this tiny little project. How have I dug myself into such a deep, narrow hole? The questions I am asking-and-trying to answer seem very small ones, of interest to very few people. What has happened to the exhilarating sense of expanse with which I’d first embraced this process?...

I work on, staying at home, not getting out much. Sometime after the firth of my first child, I return to a grad student gathering. I feel the lively engagement of the others, feel again the heaviness of my own silence, my out-of-the-loopness. I don’t know—already, just one year later—don’t know what they know. Can’t enter the conversation.

Renato Rosaldo re-tells Kenneth Burke’s “parable of a conversation that goes on before, during, and after any talker’s lifetime: ‘Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in…a discussion too hearted for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about…You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defence; another aligns himself against you…the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late; you must depart. And you do depart, with the conversation still in progress.”

Putting in one’s oar is often difficult. Through these defining tales, I hear, recurring, the motif of exclusion. I want to be included, myself. And I want to hear the voices that have not been listened to.

The graveyard at The Old Chapel in Boyce, Virginia, is full. Susan Dean’s brother is being buried just outside the gates. Wandering around, before his memorial service, I find a marker in (the back right-hand corner of) the cemetery:

To the glory of God

And in Remembrance of the Many Personal

Servants Buried Here Before 1865.

Faithful and dedicated in Life, Their Friends
And Masers Laid Them Near Them in Death,
With Affection and Gratitude.

Their Memory Remains, Through their Wooden Markers,
Like the Way of Life of That Day,
Are Gone Forever.

I.T. G. 1957


The silence is deafening….