Thursday, September 13, 2012

Memory Files

Hi, there!

Speaking of classes, I've spent much of today going over the websites for my grad school courses, downloading files. I had a practical reason for doing this, but the computer files activated files of another, more personal sort, the old syllabi, assignments, and notes evoking the thoughts and feelings of what seems like long ago. I grew nostalgic. I remembered things I did not want to forget.

It's not that I grew melancholy over people lost to me in the mists of the past. On the contrary, the people whom I really connected with back then are, in one way or another, more connected to me now. Friendships have happened, not disintegrated. Mistakes have happened, too, and I might regret them if I'd combed through these files in another sort of mood, but what good would that do? One form of insanity is wishing for a better past. Actually, it was the long-lost stranger-ness that struck me, reading these files that are so distinctively the work of familiar people that I cannot help but hear the author's voices in my mind's ear, yet I can also remember that when I read these first they were the words of strangers. It is almost eerie.

But I was struck more poignantly by reminders of long-lost information, things I learned briefly, or started to learn, but then could not retain. The issue is that I will not have access to all of these files forever, and it would be silly to rely on the class websites forever even if I could. It's time to move out, as it were, get my own intellectual place, and so I decided to download everything I was not prepared to lose. And there I ran into a problem.

I've told you before that there are classes I wish I'd done better at. It's not a matter of academic pride over my grades (they were ok), it's that these were opportunities to learn important things from brilliant people, and I couldn't absorb all of it. I didn't expect myself to absorb all of it, and there are thing I learned that I don't think I'll really need. I don't need to know how to use a certain computer program to do a certain statistical procedure, for example. As a writer I won't need to do the procedure, and I don't have access to that computer program, anyway. All I really need is to understand why that test might be done, and what the results mean, so I can understand science well enough to write intelligently about it. I mostly do understand, but downloading the lecture outlines will help me decipher my notes, should I wish to refresh my memory. That's all I need.

And yet.

Right there, saved on the website, were all of the old assignments, complete with the data sets. If I could get access to the software packages (and if I tried hard enough I could arrange it), I could re-do the assignments. I could take myself through the course again, and this time I could do better, I could make myself retain more, I could really take full advantage of the I really going to do that? No, of course not. I have better and more interesting things to do that struggling to repeat a course (sans teacher, this time) that I actually passed to begin with. What I have forgotten, I forgot because I did not need to know it. I still don't. I need to know other things, and these take up my time.

And yet.

Committing myself, giving up the illusion that I will someday do better that this....I did not download the data sets. I'm trained as a scientist. Scientists do not indulge in illusions.

I wish we human beings could grow our souls and our intellects in expanding spheres, learning more about everything in every direction, taking advantage of all possibilities fully. Somewhere, I still think we should be able to do it. I know we can't. We pucker, we buckle, we focus, and we choose. As a child, I took German.   I hardly know any German now. I don't particularly need or want to know German, which is why I don't keep up with it, but it bothers me nevertheless that I abandoned that road. As a child I was also friends with a girl named Janna. I really, really liked her, but we lost touch for no good reason at all, and children grow so fast...they start to look different. The last time I saw Janna, she was just this strange girl who kept looking at me, as if she knew me, but wasn't sure. As if she was hoping it was me, but wanted me to recognize her, so she could be sure, before she said anything. I didn't recognize her. She didn't say anything. It was only later that I realized who she must be. We choose, we are chosen, and we leave things behind for sometimes no good reason at all.

I'm visiting my mother--using her computer, actually, as mine is in the shop. Being back in my home town always puts me in this kind of mood. Every street-corner, every building is another hint at almost. I am comfortable with most of the choices I've made; I'd do most things over again the same way, if I had the choice. Even most of the stupid decisions lead somewhere interesting and so have meaning to me now. And if I did make different decisions--if I had learned German, if I had stayed in touch with Janna, if I had stayed involved with this or that organization--something else would surely have been lost, simply for want of space. I accept this. It's just that at 35 years old I am aware, and not for the first time, how unavoidably messy being a grown-up is.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Staying Up Late

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."

I got that from a book of Zen quotes--I forget where it is from originally, but I've always liked it. I've always found it comforting to think that our scars and limitations and broken places are normal, and can be gotten past. There is a crack in everything. You don't have to be perfect. You don't have to do what you cannot do. That's how the light gets in. I once knew a man who called himself Mind Shatter. He was hiking the Appalachian Trail, and names like that were normal. He said something had made him break--he never told me what, and of course I never asked--but that when he broke, cracks formed in his mind, and through those cracks some light from inside him began to shine. He seemed perfectly sane, by the way, not "cracked" in the colloquial sense. He did, in fact, shine with a kind of relaxed friendliness. I never knew him well.

But the reason this quote, and by extension my one-time friend, Shatter, has been on my mind is that they rang the bells an campus yesterday. I never saw you at such a ceremony, but obviously you know about it. I missed it this year quite deliberately; it begins a semester I do not belong to.

A few months ago, I accidentally walked in on the bell ringing that ended the Spring semester, which I was not really part of, either. I've been hanging out on this campus I don't quite belong to all summer, using the internet and being available for people who know me--and some people who don't--to stop and chat. They seem to like me there. And I've hung around all summer, and now I'm watching the fall begin. I'm watching a new crop of first-year students come in, and I'm helping them sort out the printer and find their way to the Registrar's Office. They ask me; I don't know how they can tell that I know the answer, and of course sometimes I don't.

I've never spent the summer on campus before. I went away in the spring, and I returned in the fall, and one academic year turned into another while I was gone. Like how you go to sleep, and one day magically turns into another while you are sleeping. Staying here this summer has been like staying up all night, which I do very rarely, and did not do at all until I was ten or eleven years old. The way it works is you stay up, up, up up, and one, two, three in the morning, all of which are in the morning by a trick of language only, and then suddenly, around four or four-thirty, it just feels like morning. A new day has begun. A faint transparency to the night, a singing bird, confirm the issue some minutes or hours later, depending on the time of year, but after four in the morning it feels like morning, and if you wanted to go to bed that night, you know it's too late. You've stayed up all night, and seen the thing good children don't; the magic moment when one day becomes another.

There is no way to quite belong, when you see the thing bare that other people don't.

I have no idea if this is something you can identify with. I don't know how or when you sleep. I know you show up for dawn sometimes for the sake of birds, and I've seen you show up at work underslept, speaking of staying up late to work on this or that outline or assignment. I never knew whether you were up in order to work, or up for some other reason and working because you might as well. It's such a secret place, sleeplessness. That's why I stay up sometimes. That's why I won't ask whether you do, whether you like that magic moment when night turns into the next day.

I don't really belong on campus anymore, but I belong with some of the people who frequent campus, so I frequent it, too. I've heard that sometimes people ring the bells for occasions other than the beginning and end of semesters--to memorialize the fallen, for example. I've never done that, because I've never been part of the group that had lost. I entertained the possibility of ringing them at my wedding, and I might have asked if I could, if I'd gotten married anywhere near campus. If I had, would you have arrived to ring them? I think that though I'm clearly on the outside looking in, I am still on the inside of something else.