Saturday, May 26, 2012

Came to See Friends

So, yes, I'm back in town for a while. I hope this means I'll get to see you on a regular basis again, but I understand logistics are still up in the air. In deciding to come here, I did not take it for granted that I'd be able to see much of you, but the possibility was on my mind. There are other people, individually and collectively, I came here for, too.

Came to see friends
walk old streets again

Yes, Jimmy Buffet again. I've only been gone a year, but I still have that sense of returning to a place once familiar, yet not quite part of my real life. I'm getting used to being here now, but for a while as I walked, or biked, the old streets, I saw the past much more clearly than the present. It's especially bad on campus, where I go sometimes for this or that reason and walk by classrooms and offices hallowed by this or that memory, most of them, I know intellectually, not particularly important in and of themselves, but they seem so. How is it that a trick of memory can, across only two or three years, cast such a golden glow on events that I know were actually stressful or irritating at the time? Yet here are these temples in my mind. Even off campus I see them. There, that street, is where a friend and I walked, talking about the light of the town, and Rilke, and our futures. It almost seems like we must be walking there yet, as though I might bump into myself and my friend, if I wait just a minute more, on the right street.

In another blog of mine, I write of a fictional group of classrooms that are renamed every year. When I came up with the idea, I was only trying to evoke a kind of magical changeability in a non-fantasy setting. Like how in Harry Potter some of the stairways in the magical school move. I thought that if the names of the room were constantly changing, that might be whimsical and confusing in the same way. But after I came up with the idea, it occurred to me that this might actually be a truer way to do something, to define places not only by space but also by time. I can go back to a particular location on campus, but it's not the same place that I remember, because it's not the same time. If I could find the right place again, I could walk in and it would be Thursday morning at eight sharp and I could take my place among the other students and the adventure would be just beginning.

It's not exactly that I would rather be there than here and now. As I said, I worked very hard to get from there to here. To some extent I'm reacting to the persistent illusion that the past was less stressful than the present, an illusion created by the fact that of course I now know how those classes turned out. I know I passed, that I made friends with some of my fellow students and most of my teachers, that I made some mistakes but none of them were actually lethal, and so forth. To some extend, too, I'm reacting to the childlike quality of being a student with a lot of required courses to take; it's the condition of being both optimistic and confused, and being constantly told what to do by wise and benevolent grown-ups. But mostly I just come loose in time, falling into the past whenever  the places that I see in front of me have a stronger hold on my memory than on my present daily life. It will pass. I will re-orient myself. I will look around myself and see the present again.

Today, in the present, there is too much noise. The camp ground we call home for the moment has been invaded by an excessively loud three-day music festival. If I were Queen of the Universe, there would be a law against this sort of thing. But I'm not Queen of the Universe. I'm not even sure I'm Queen of the Trailer--no, I just asked, and Chris says that I must be Queen of the Trailer, because he sure as hell ain't. So I'm Queen of the Trailer, hurrah! But my jurisdiction is extremely limited; I cannot entirely keep discordant noises out, nor can I order people to visit whom I miss. I can't even keep the dogs from puking on the bed. I must be more of a figure-head royal.

I saw a phoebe the other day and thought of you, not least because I was not entirely sure it was a phoebe, and you would have known. It was tending its nest, and trying to pretend that it wasn't, so that I would not guess where the nest was. The phoebe failed, in that I spotted its nest, precisely because it was so characteristically pretending not to have one. But the bird needn't worry; I will keep its secret.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Walking in May

Hi, there.

It was good to see you today, both to interact with you and, simply, to see you participate in the ceremony. You’d said before that Commencement was something, a side of the school we don’t normally see—the only time it feels like a “normal” school. You said this with a surprising fondness, considering that I’d never pegged you as a particularly normal person, but I’m glad you were there, and I’m glad I went.

I liked the ceremony and the dim grandeur of the auditorium, and the quirky details of tradition not all of which were explained. Like, ok, they explained what the mace was, and someone described the colors of the hoods, but why have hoods to begin with? And why does academic rigor call for tassels and strange hats and men in robes that hang past their knees? We don’t need to understand all things consciously. There are some who make the mistake of too much explication.  I say, let the Mystery go unexplained, sign and signal of deeper Mysteries to be artistically explored and scientifically plumbed. Let the procession of men and women go by in black, preceded by the Mace held aloft, the President of the campus coincidentally robed in red like some academic bishop, everyone else in black with colored ribbons and trim, variously grand, scholarly, or foppish, let speeches be made and obscure higher-ups be thanked, and let us be created masters or doctors in turn by the power vested in incantation. And let the men and women in black process away again to the chanting oompa oompa of horns.

You were one of the grand ones. Academic regalia suits you. My mother once said once of a certain person that he looked as though he had on an “invisible opera cape.” I don’t remember who she was talking about, and I don’t have a clear idea of what an opera cape looks like, but in an analogous way, I’ve always thought you seemed to be wearing an invisible black robe. To see you really dressed that way looked so right.

I’m not sure what, if anything, this actually means about you. I don’t think pomp and circumstance itself is particularly your thing—and you actually looked kind of bored during the ceremony.  Maybe it’s that something about the look of medieval formality suits you; academic regalia must be the sartorial first cousin of wizards’ robes (after all, the first scientists were medieval alchemists), and you do have dried bats in your office. Or at least, you used to.

I sat around in my own robes noticing these things in part because I was not sure what else to do. I sat through a ceremony meant to confer upon me the degree of Master of Science, but I have not finished my thesis yet…and neither have a lot of other people who sat beside beside me. So what did the ceremony do? What did it do to me? I feel as though the degree today conferred is floating above my head in a small, golden cloud, there to follow me around until I finally finish my thesis and the cloud settles upon me at last. Then, truly I will be robed in accomplishment.

I should have walked last year. I could have, and I did not, because I wanted to wait till I was really finished—but if I waited now till next year, hardly anyone would be left who knows who I am. So now I’ve given up walking with my own cohort for nothing—except I was quite proud to walk with the cohort that commenced today.  But I was quite torn last year—I could have gone, and did not, and the whole time my cohort was graduating I walked the streets of town with a song stuck in my head;

Once upon a time there was a tavern,
where we used to raise a glass or two.
Remember how we’d laugh away the hours
And dream of all the great things we would do?

It was one of the songs traditionally sung at my grade-school’s graduation. The song is all about nostalgia, how the good times are all in the past and the best part of life is being young and foolish…which is a pretty sick thing to play at an eighth-grade graduation, if you think about it. At the time I didn’t think about it, except I knew I liked the song for its fun rhythm and fond associations. And then for years I didn’t think about it at all, until last year it just popped into my head, as clearly and instantly as if I’d had a radio in my brain.

From the door there came familiar laughter
I saw your face and heard you call my name.
Oh, my friends, we’re older but no wiser,
For in our hearts our dreams are still the same.

I’m really glad I’m both older and wiser than I was when I was thirteen. I was pretty crazy and really depressed at that point in my life. And while I’m in pretty good spirits these days, I hope to get wiser than I am today. I don’t think that involves giving up dreams; it involves using those dreams to do something practical and marvelous. But I guess that while my friends processed, I joined them in my head with the old graduation song of my childhood.

Why didn’t I get the actual graduation march stuck in my head? We played that at 8th grade graduation, too, after all. Maybe because I didn’t like the song as much. It reminded me less of graduation in general and more of my 8th grade graduation particularly, which I did not want to go through. I’d been at the same school for seven years, and it was part of my world.  Intellectually, I understood what was happening, of course, but emotionally, it felt like I was being arbitrarily evicted. After all, I had never gone to school in order to achieve anything, I just went because I was a kid, and kids went to school. For many years, the graduation march was unbearably sad to me—it’s such a proud, grandly triumphant song, and  it so denied the reality of my experience that day.

College graduation went rather better. As an adult, I can and do pursue my education for an actual reason, and I can be happy and proud when I reach my goal. I was proud of my school, and at the same time happy to leave it, happy to move on with my life. I heard the song that time more like it was meant. I kind of like it, now. But Pomp and Circumstance wasn’t the song that was stuck in my head all day today.

No, I had the theme for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Wouldn’t that make a great graduation march? I mean, it’s even done with a horn ensemble, same as the march they actually played—it’s got a faster beat, though. As my husband suggested, if we processed in that way, we’d have to do Silly Walks. While we were waiting in the cafeteria, lined up waiting for the procession to start, I did started dancing. Did you know that academic robes and bare feet are just the thing to dance in? The tassel and the big ol’ sleeves go flip-flop, and bare feet slap on the floor, and I just was having a great old time. At first I sang “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” but then I changed it to “it’s the end of the line as we know it,” since our group was indeed at the back, not counting the PhD people. The man standing next to me in the procession hid his face with his program, muttering that he doesn’t know me. But he smiled. And then I danced to Monty Python for a while, not that I sung it, as I can’t usually sing things without words to keep me organized, but it was in my head clear as anything.

Afterwards, when I thanked you, you said that this day changes nothing, that we are, first and foremost, friends. That is true. But never again am I likely to see you dressed like a wizard. And never again am I likely to find my education directed by such a constellation of excellent people.

And now for something completely different!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Waking the Living

As you know, you weren't at the retirement party the other day--though someone who looked oddly like you was there, which was disorienting. I kept looking and looking to see whether perhaps it was you, but changed somehow.

And change was very much the order of the day. As I've told you before, I've always thought that leaving a distinct community, like a school, is in some ways akin to death; the graduate, or the retiree, or anyone else who leaves, has to go on into the unknown, has to leave behind the context that previously defined part (or all) of his or her life. The people who are left behind feel a kind of draft at the door, and have to meet together to affirm the changing relationships--not just with the departed, but with each other. When someone retires or graduates, we call that meeting a party. When someone dies, we call it a wake.

Of course Tom isn't dead, or even really academically gone, as he plans to keep his hand in. But neither are the dead really gone--and I'm not thinking here of the spiritual afterlife. I'm thinking of a great tree that, dying, serves as nesting and forage opportunities for insects, spiders, birds, and bats. Shelf fungus weaves its way, eating wood like some blind animal, before flowering out its hard, perennial toadstools. When the old tree finally falls, you can tell which shelves predated the fall because they're still pointed along the trunk. Fungus gets disoriented, too, by change. The newer fungal shelves will come out properly sideways. In the dark, the mycelial threads feel the change and adapt.

Depending on species and location, things grow on the trunk, or don't. The bark rots off, or it doesn't. Moss makes its green inroads, or it doesn't. If it's a big, old chestnut, rotting from the inside out but never very much or very fast, the tree could make itself a tunnel in which children could build a fort, generations after the tree died, suddenly. Like any small animals, children want a safe, enclosed space they can call their very own. How's that for environmental education?

Or I'm thinking about whales, or even, maybe, great ships, especially the ones made of romance and wood. They disappear--pop!--from the surface, from vision, but inside the sea they persist, lying on the far side of the water, temporary islands of food and shelter, as successional waves of clams and worms and hidden things eat the leviathan and each other and then swim or crawl away, on to the next island dropped down to them by Providence.

Neither tree or whale nor ship (nor the trees that made the ship) is a living organism anymore. The nature of its relationships has changed profoundly. But tell it to the ship worms or the termites if you think the great being is really gone. We organisms like to keep our hand in.

The party had some element of reunion, students coming from all over, graduation years from prior decades pinned to the sweaters of game old women, groups of people standing together, rocking babies, talking of how it's been so long since we've seen each other, and we should really get together like this more often. We should start having real reunions.


Maybe we will have reunions. We probably should. But not so many people would come. Not all the people who think today that we should have reunions would come.

The reunion as life transition marker reminded me of the memorial service for the headmaster of my old boarding school. Unlike Tom, Michael really was dead, and unlike Tom, Michael was not really liked by many people--or Michael was not simply liked by many. He embodied and inspired a powerful ambivalence, but, for better or worse, he shaped our lives. Or parts of our lives, aspects of our lives, periods within our lives. Michael never admitted publicly that there was more than one way to benefit from the school, and there was never more than one acceptable way to leave it. If you didn't graduate--and most of us didn't--you weren't welcome back. Not ever. Of people who ran away (an admittedly dangerous and hurtful thing for a teenager to do), Michael famously once said "if you have to pee, go pee, but not on my leg!" In other words, get your needs met within the community, not by violating it. Fine, a noble sentiment, but to continue the analogy, Michael never did provide his students with any real choice of urinals. His leg got wet a lot, and there were a lot of exiles.

But when he was like he couldn't keep us away from him anymore. Something collapsed, and we all rushed in, flowing across the country on only a few day's notice, dropping everything, to come to him, and to each other.

We had a reunion.

I doubt we'll have another one. There was a second reunion, a few years back, after the campus was sold--waking the school, as opposed to just Michael--but I didn't go, and I've heard no talk of anything regular. We're all involved in our own lives.

What is it that collapsed, that drew us all so powerfully in? I'm thinking of the death of a huge star, when nuclear fusion finally fails, gravity suddenly trumps radiance, and the star-stuff rushes in towards its center and then explodes, shining. I'm thinking of the attractive, descending vortex when a great ship goes down.

I have not had the opportunity to wake you professionally. I doubt I will. I wonder what I would say? Something complimentary, I'm sure; I've seen you work, and you are a treasure. But so much of our relationship has transcended the professional by now. So much of it is in these letters, which probably wouldn't make it into a professional wake. They'd have to wait for the final, personal wake, a thing I will likely endure, as I am much younger than you, and not particularly self-destructive at this point in my life. And I don't intend to drift away from you, not so far that a current from you could not reach me. But I will not think of that eventuality. Whatever happens to lives, I know life goes on. The old tree dies, the old hawk falls from the sky and something--what would it be, a tufted titmouse? You'd know, I'm sure--plucks the ruined feathers for its new nest.  Life goes on.

But I am partial to some lives particularly.

Best, as ever,