Monday, September 28, 2009

The last first day

There was a clear sky this morning, a slight chill in the air, and the wood floors downstairs were glowing in the half-light of dawn. I was grumpy at first--I saw too many stars last night and only fell truly asleep when it was past time to get up--grouchily, I began to truncate my morning routine. But in the middle of trimming minutes and slicing seconds, I realized that this is it: today is my last first day.

Three years ago, I drove, stiff and scared, to campus and sat through my first class (music appreciation), numb with excitement. I didn't know what to expect, but I couldn't wait. Today, I arrived to my second year of Greek--my last year of undergraduate life--with only a few minutes to spare. I found the seat I had last year and sat patiently through the recitation of the syllabus. Everything is comfortable, familiar, and if the work load I've set myself this term is a little overwhelming, I know that, if nothing else, I'm capable of plowing through it (I always do, somehow). I have excellent colleagues, fantastic professors (and I mean every, single syllable and letter of the word "fantastic"), a warm home, and a loving family and friends. I'm where I should be right now, doing what I should be doing: studying, working, filling out applications and making plans, teaching. And, through it all, I like to think that I am learning, in Sylvia Plath's words, how to be "big and glad for other people and make them happy."

It's good to be back.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Down all that glory"


Hurrahing in Harvest

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
And eyes, heart, what looks, what lips yet give you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
Majestic - as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet! -
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Towards autumn

We spent this weekend resting our bodies and minds in a little cabin in the woods. There was some rain and sunshine, and there was, too, that hint of a chill in the air that signals the end of summer. I was reading Hopkins again when I found, tucked away in the middle of my anthology, the first poem that I ever read of his: a brief meditation on fall. This one is a little gloomy, and I know for a fact that he has a happier poem about harvest, but tonight, it's Margaret and her wise-child grief that have drawn me.


Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

Márgarét, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow's spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

-Gerard Manley Hopkins

Friday, September 18, 2009

Words for a Friday morning...

Schoenbrunn (Vienna, Austria) at sunset

...and for a 501 blog post. With a nod, once again, to Quiet Life.

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.
That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody's business.
What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can.

Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I've been thought naive before; this afternoon, I could feel the thought directed my way as we sat on green benches beneath a blue fall sky, listening to the sound of the cheerleading squad on the other side of the football field. She said, "You know, there are evil people in the world."

And I said, "Where?"

"Hitler, for instance," she said, forcefully. "That was evil. Or you could come to work with me, and I would show you. You would see."

I said, "Yes, of course. You're right."

"I don't think you understand, though."

And maybe she's right about that, too. There are, without a doubt, people who have been touched by an evil that I hope never comes near me. I've read about them in books or newspapers; I know a few of them. But I don't know what they've felt, and, emotionally, I don't think I really understand.

But I decided, as I thought about it this evening, that I'm alright with not understanding, with this kind of naivety. It is, in its own way, a blessing. For years, I have been surrounded--at home and at work and at school--by warm-hearted, genuinely kind people. I have seen and felt so much goodness, and the more of it I experience, the easier it is to find--multiplied and magnified--in other faces. It's not fair, I know. Does anyone have a right to this much happiness?

Probably not.

The least I can do, given the circumstances, is to continue to feel its weight in my palms--to acknowledge evil (gravely) but to remain (always) surprised by joy.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

From the travel journal: The Jewish Memorial

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was the first place we went yesterday after finding our way out of the Berlin suburbs where we were staying and into the heart of the city. The memorial is an expanse of gray granite blocks of varying heights arranged in a shaky, grid-like pattern. Below the memorial is a museum designed, like the museum in New York, with a thoughtful attention to detail. The emphasis of the displays was not simply on the sheer magnitude of the Holocaust, but on its intimacy. The displays were designed to illuminate individual biographies and the lives of families, so that the blank blocks that mark the memorial's location above ground give way to intensely personal moments below.

When we left the museum, the clouds were heavy and dark. We wound our way through a few corridors of the memorial. A light rain licked the cobblestones and spattered blackly against the granite blocks. We were both quiet--a little chilled, I think, by the cool morning and quiet darkness of the museum--but the memorial was alive with sound. From across the square, joining the light-footed patter of rain, came the rush of running feet and the voices of children, laughing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

From the travel journal: Berliner Fernsehturm

18. August. This evening we stood at the top of the Fernsehturm with the whole city of Berlin spread out below us: not as riotous or flashy as New York, but still overwhelming in its size. The Fernsehturm is in the center of the city and at 203m (from the panorama deck), offers a view of the river, the Brandenburger Tor, the Hauptbahnhof, and the gray expanses of apartments, offices, and universities that are the centers of life and work and learning in every large city. We walked once around the panorama deck and caught a glimpse of the purpling sunset before waiting our turn to go up to the restaurant.

A few meters higher than the panorma deck, the restaurant is set on a slowly revolving platform. We ordered cake and wine, and while we talked, the city spun below us. Unter den Linden and Friedrichsstr. and other broad avenues twisted away from the tower in streams of light. The silhouette of the Brandenburger Tor was at first sharp, and later faded against the blackening sky. The red wine swirled together with the big band and swing music, and for a few long moments we were, all of us, silent.

Then, "Some people will never get to do this," one of us said. "Isn't that sad? They'll spend their whole lives never living anywhere but their towns, never leaving their states. But we--why!--we're in Berlin!"

And she was right. We're in Berlin.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

"People in Glass Houses"

It's good to have my books within arm's reach again. I sat down today to work on one of the never-ending applications, and L'Engle called to me. Instead of writing, I went page-chasing. The poem I found this time is, by the last verse, a little grim (and today is not a grim day! There are sunny skies here and relatively light hearts.) But I'm posting it because I like the first verse, and the last few lines. I like crystal prisms, shards of light; and if there are rain and stones, well, that happens sometimes, too.


"People in Glass Houses"

I build my house of shining glass
of crystal
light, clear,
The wind blows
Sets my rooms to singing.
The sun's bright rays
are not held back
but pour
their radiance through the rooms
in sparkles of delight.

And what, you ask, of rain
that leaves blurred muddy streaks
across translucent purity?
What, you ask,
of the throwers of stones?

Glass shatters,
sharp fragments pierce my flesh,
darken with blood.
The wind tinkles brittle splinters
of shivered crystal.
The stones crash through.
But never mind.
My house
My lovely shining
fragile broken house
is filled with flowers
and founded on a rock.

--Madeleine L'Engle

From the travel journal: Texture

17. August. "You should take more pictures," I was told. But I know that, for myself, the camera can be a dangerous distraction; it's easy to sacrifice four of my senses for the sake of just one. And sometimes I feel more when I see less. (I really do mean just "sometimes," though. Last year, the day our resident director told us to put away our cameras and just feel, I kept mine and ended up taking one of the most meaningful pictures of my entire trip.)

On my return to Europe, it is the texture of the everyday that captivates: the feel of rounded cobblestones beneath my feet, the roughness of the engravings on tombstones, the curve of the belly of a bronze statue, the layers of a lemon cake (dry crumb alternating with smooth cream), the points of drying grass beside a lake.

It is not, I think, that these things are so very different from what I am used to at home. Rounded edges and roughness and points are all parts of my Oregon world. But the sensations are rendered extraordinary by their unfamiliar setting--by the fact that I can attach the name of a different country to their location--by the fact that what I am feeling is not home.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Not like eight years

This morning I asked for the date and then, as I wrote it down, I remembered, and I said, "Can you believe it's been eight years?" And the answer was, of course, "No. No, it doesn't feel like it's been eight years at all."

Earlier this year, I was in New York. Out of all the copious pages of notes and thoughts that I kept during that time, there is just one paragraph about the 9/11 memorial:

Visiting the memorial--and standing across the street from the space where the twin towers once stood--was sobering. September 11 has affected so much of my life--I've grown up under the shadow of war and terrorism and it seemed almost unreal to be standing at the place where everything began (although I suppose it all began much earlier). They've done a really lovely job with the memories. The photographs and memorabilia and opportunities to make our own contributions to the story were tasteful and meaningful.

It may not feel like it's been eight years, but the words in this paragraph taste of the distance of time. The emotions are so very far removed from that day eight years ago when I sat on the steps outside our apartment building, trying to escape the sound of the radio and tv, writing down everything I had heard in the paradoxical attempt to both preserve and purge.

In 2001 I was writing: "Every station has something on it"; "I feel heartbroken"; "Tonight we lit candles and placed them in our windows--to honor the dead."

The words I wrote this spring were about a museum--an appreciation for well-organized space and artifacts respectfully-treated. And there is a blessing in that distance, because with it comes a sober peace. The sudden surge of anxiety I used to feel when I heard the sound of a jet flying low over-head has given way to a thankfulness for the steady, comforting beat of time.

So, no, it doesn't feel like eight years. But that's not a bad thing, either.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

From the travel journal: Departure

The woman next to me on the flight to Calgary described the city as a scene from a pop-up book. "Calgary has sky," she declared. "The mountains are so far away and the land stretches and stretches, but the city is compact--dense--it springs up from the landscape. I always told my kids it was like a pop-up. Watch for it." There was cloud-cover when we flew into Calgary though, and the angle was wrong, so the pop-up never appeared. Only when I looked over my shoulder upon reaching the terminal did I see it: a cluster of gray towers rising against a flat gray sky, up from an expanse of gray suburbs and fields. It was raining.

It is easy to leave home now. I pack and print itineraries, drive to the airport and say goodbye, and there is no regret--not because I like to leave, but because I love to go. There is nothing in the world like traveling: nothing like the rumble of a jet, the texture of an upside-down sky, the rush of joy and tinge of the unfamiliar that greet one upon touching down.

Tonight, I watched a sunset from above. The layers of the atmosphere turned pink and deepened to billows of purple. The horizon glowed and the sun shimmered and dipped and dipped until only wisps of rose were left scarfing the air, curling below the great, aching wings of the plane.

Hard to believe that it has only been six years since my first trip abroad. And how unexpected that now, barely a year after my return from Tuebingen, I am Europe-bound again.

It's an addiction. And I am determined to keep feeding it again and again and again--for the rest of my life.
Vacation is over. Yesterday, I exchanged the joys of Europe for the discomforts of a long flight home. Today I have applications to write, bags to unpack, and a cold to battle. But I wanted to say, as I told my family yesterday: It's good to be back in the United States. And it's good to be home.


The following quote is related neither to traveling nor to coming home, but it's a good one and worth requoting and rereading. Frequently. HT: Quiet Life.

"I've learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow. I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. I've learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you'll miss them when they're gone from your life. I've learned that making a "living" is not the same thing as making a "life." I've learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. I've learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back. I've learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I've learned that even when I have pains, I don't have to be one. I've learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I've learned that I still have a lot to learn. I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
— Maya Angelou