This time I have a good reason for not finishing a book in high school. Really, I do. In mid-March of my senior year in high school, I got the chicken pox. Adult chicken pox. It was the sickest I have ever been. If I told you all the places on my body where I had chicken pox, this blog would get flagged for inappropriate content. I was so sick that I don’t think I even had the energy to be happy that I was missing Paradise Lost. Nothing in the world beyond my bed interested me for three weeks. Even when my college acceptance letters came – all on the same day around the first of April – I could only manage a slight, painful smile.
In the middle of our senior year, Fr. Murphy accepted a position as the principal of another Jesuit high school. He made plans to spend a week there in March to meet the faculty and students and get a head start on the administrative work he would be doing once the school year was over. On our syllabus he called this week “Independent Learning Week.” If you’ve ever taught high school seniors, you know that this statement is hilarious. Jill and I had Fr. Murphy during fourth period, which was the lunch period for freshmen and sophomores. Fifth period was the lunch period for juniors and seniors, so when we missed our fourth period class, we had two back-to-back lunch periods.
It happens that during our senior year, my friends and I had formed a group called the SFD CLC. “CLC” stood for Christian Life Community, and this was an established program at our school. Groups of students and faculty could create CLC’s for a wide variety of purposes: community service, prayer, friendship, whatever. Well, we created a CLC with the purpose of eating lunch in the multipurpose room in the Campus Ministry Center, which was new and swanky. Our preferred table in the dining hall was right next to a door, and some of our friends got cold easily. I’m not entirely sure why we didn’t just choose a table that was not close to the door, but we didn’t. Our solution instead was to find a faculty sponsor and incorporate ourselves as a CLC. “SFD” stood for “Shut the Fucking Door,” but on our official paperwork, we claimed it stood for “Senior Females and Dimwits.” The dimwits were our two male friends. Whenever possible, we reserved the multi-purpose room in the Campus Ministry center for the purpose of hanging out together and eating lunch and feeling superior.
Parts of this plan that would not fly in any of the schools where I’ve taught:
- Taking our yearbook picture in front of a mural of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito that was painted on the wall of our faculty member’s history classroom,
- The existence of a mural of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito in a high school classroom, and
- Successfully masquerading as a bunch of cliquish, man-hating, my-shit-don’t-stink high school girls in order to camouflage a swear word in our true name. Well, not masquerading, I guess, since we really were a bit cliquish, and maybe we were a little bit man-hating too. But only a little bit.
So when Fr. Murphy announced Independent Learning Week, we raced down to the Campus Ministry center to reserve the space. A week in late March with almost two hours free in the middle of the day, and a private room in which to spend that time: life doesn’t get that better when you’re a high school senior – especially if you’re a high school senior who is afraid of drugs and sex.
But then adult chicken pox happened. I had maybe kinda-sorta had the chicken pox before, on a camping trip with my class just before my eighth grade graduation. I had been exposed to the chicken pox two weeks before the trip, and on the second or third night of the trip I developed a low-grade fever and some pustules, but there was great disagreement among my teachers about whether the pustules were the chicken pox or whether they were just mosquito bites. So in other words, if it was chicken pox, it was a very mild case. Because of this earlier mild case, I didn’t think twice when I arrived at a babysitting job in early March of my senior year and was told by the children’s mother that they had both come down with chicken pox that morning. “No problem,” I said, and I proceeded to spend several hours that evening bathing the kids in oatmeal baths, applying calamine lotion to their pustules, and snuggling up to them on the couch to read stories.
Two weeks later, to the day, I was sitting in my kitchen late on a Friday night, with a fever of 102 and a telephone receiver in my hand. I was supposed to go to a CSF conference the following day (for the non-Californians out there, CSF is the California Scholarship Federation – sort of like NHS but more local), and I must have been assigned some fairly significant role at the conference because I remember that I felt terrible about having to call and tell the president of our CSF chapter that I couldn’t be there. If there’s one thing that terrifies me – and always has – it’s calling someone to tell them that I can’t do something that I have agreed to do. It’s the worst thing ever. If I were ever to go on Fear Factor, the producers of that show would save an enormous amount of money from their rat and snake budget, because all they would have to do is hand me a phone and make me call people and cancel plans. It’s the worst.
So finally I called the classmate who was in charge of the event, hung up the phone, and proceeded to sit in the kitchen for most of the night, holding a hand mirror and watching the pustules appear. They started on my scalp and moved down my face, populating my neck and shoulders and upper back around dawn. I did sleep a little, but mostly I was too fascinated to put down the hand mirror. My parents were already asleep, and while they knew I had a fever, they didn’t know about the pustules. My dad came downstairs around 7 am, and by that point I was thoroughly and completely poxed, as a Shakespeare character would say, except that the Shakespeare character would be talking about syphilis.
So I missed independent learning week. But that was okay, because the book that we were required to learn independently was Paradise Lost. I don’t have too many complaints about my high school education – for the most part it was excellent – but my teachers did seem to have a tendency to assign the most difficult books for the times when they would be unavailable to teach them. First there was The Odyssey, which my freshman English teacher assigned us to read over spring break and then tested us on the first day back. And then there was Paradise Lost. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m astonished at how much Fr. Murphy trusted us. I’ve never dared to teach Paradise Lost, and if I ever did, I would plan on doing nothing at all in class except working through the reading. Is that wise of me, or is it a sign that I didn’t trust my students as much as my own teachers trusted me? The Chinese sage Mencius wrote, “There are many ways of teaching. To deliberately refuse to teach is also a way of teaching.”
So while my friends struggled through Paradise Lost in the Campus Ministry multipurpose room, I lay in bed in a pool of my own pus. I don’t think I even cracked the spine of my copy of Paradise Lost, although for once I had a good reason for my laziness. When I came back to school, less than a month before graduation, no one really expected me to catch up on everything. I do remember that I was present for a few of Fr. Murphy’s lectures on Paradise Lost. I remember just sitting there thinking, “Wait – Sin and Death are people? How does that work?” Allegory was not my thing in the 1994.
Of course by now I know a good bit about what Paradise Lost is, how revolutionary it was as theology and how brilliant it is as a work of art. In my freshman year of college, I read Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and was fascinated by the line, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God but at liberty when of devils and Hell is that Milton was a true poet, and therefore of the devil’s party without knowing it.” I typed up this quotation and hung it on the wall above my desk, and presumably its presence there might lead someone to the conclusion that I knew enough about Milton to understand what Blake meant, and of course I didn’t. Two years later, I had a poetry professor who lionized Milton. We read “Lycidas” in his class and left at the end of the term with strict orders to read Paradise Lost over the summer, so I did.
Just kidding! You didn’t really believe that, did you?
I do remember Fr. Murphy reciting a passage from Paradise Lost – I believe this was before he left for Independent Learning week and before I left school with the chicken pox. He recited Satan’s famous speech from the moment he arrives in Hell, the one that begins “Farewell, happy fields / Where joy for ever dwells: hail horrors, hail / Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell / Receive thy new possessor: one who brings / A mind not to be changed by place or time. / The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n” (1.249-255) and ends with “To reign is worth ambition though in Hell: / Better to reign in hell than serve in Heav’n” (1.262-3). I remember Fr. Murphy standing there in his chalk-streaked black priest’s outfit (what do you call those black shirts with the space for the Roman collar? I can never remember) and thundering out these lines, and he was great. And he really did make me want to read Paradise Lost. But then the chicken pox happened.
And you know what else? Milton is hard. He’s really, really hard. I know because I actually have read parts of Paradise Lost in detail. It was a couple of years ago – Christmas break of 2011. I was visiting my dad in San Francisco, and my health was declining fast (by early February of 2012 – less than two months later – I left school on a medical leave and later quit my teaching job altogether). I spent the first half of that vacation knitting – trying to finish Christmas presents that I hadn’t been able to work on much when school was in session – and then after Christmas Day passed, I picked up Paradise Lost.
Let me be more specific: I picked up the Modern Library Classics edition of Paradise Lost, edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon. I had purchased this book before I left for San Francisco. My high school copy of Paradise Lost was still on my shelf, but guess who it was edited by? No one! It contains no footnotes, no introduction, no editor’s preface – nothing! What was Fr. Murphy thinking? Never mind – I know the answer to that question, since I’ve asked it so many times – he was thinking that we were trustworthy, that we were patient and determined, that we were more scholarly than we had ever dreamed of being. He assigned us to read Paradise Lost without any footnotes. Holy crap. I barely even trusted my high school students to feed my cats when I was on vacation, and Fr. Murphy trusted us with Milton. I can’t even get my brain around it.
I made it through three and a half of the poem’s twelve books – and, for the most part, I loved it. I read the entire introduction and all of the footnotes, and I started to pick up on Milton’s patterns and obsessions. And I learned that this is a poem not only about the expulsion of Lucifer from heaven and the temptation of Adam and Eve but also about the politics of religion in Milton’s 17th-century England. I learned that Milton hated kings, hated the very idea of single individuals wielding so much power. I learned that Milton was a Puritan who hated the idea of predestination, that he was at odds with his fellow Protestants, and that one of his goals in Paradise Lost was to demonstrate mankind’s free will. I learned that Milton’s depiction of the cosmos in Paradise Lost is so accurate and detailed that it is possible to use portions of this poem to study astronomy. I learned that Milton was tortured by his blindness, since he equated darkness with ignorance not only in literature but in real life. I learned that there are moments throughout the poem that foreshadow the “wandering steps and slow” of the poem’s final lines – I even cross-referenced these references, and there is a long list of book and line numbers written on the last page of the poem so I can go back and track all these references. I learned that Milton innovated the syntactical pattern exemplified in “wandering steps and slow”: (adjective) (noun) (conjunction) (adjective), that he uses this pattern constantly, and that it never caught on among other poets and appears almost nowhere in the written record except in Paradise Lost. I learned that Milton was lonely. I learned that Milton once met Galileo. I learned that Milton invented the concept of hell-hounds.
And I learned that I can read Milton. He’s not easy, but he is brilliant and important and glorious and sad. He deserves my time. He deserves my time more than reading Orson Scott Card novels, more than diddling around on Facebook, more than trolling the city looking for the perfect latte, more than any number of pursuits to which I happily devote time. And while there is no question that Milton is intimidating, I kind of can’t wait to say that I have finally finished Paradise Lost.
I’m planning to start reading Paradise Lost seriously at the end of next week. I’m working some extra hours next week, and I want to wait and start reading when I truly have the ability to spend 2-3 hours on Milton each morning. I’ll read a book a day if possible, though when necessary I’ll divide a book in half and read it over two days. I also want to write about it after each reading session: not a lot, not a whole blog post, just some thoughts and reflections, because I know that if I wait until halfway through the poem to write a blog post, as I usually do with A.P. Challenge books, I’ll miss so much.
I’m so grateful for this blog. If Jill and I weren’t blogging, I certainly might have eventually decided to read my A.P. English books again. Jill and I might even have decided to do it together – who knows? But I don’t think I would have stuck with it if I hadn’t been writing about it and getting feedback. I certainly don’t think I would have finished The Portrait of a Lady if I didn’t feel accountable to the blog. I really do see Paradise Lost as a litmus test: if I can finish it and process it and make some sense of it in writing, then maybe I really have developed the confidence and patience that I’m always writing about.