Being: Waiting

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Senior year is such a strange time.

You are pulled in all directions at once. Part of you wants to get out, get out, get out–out of the midwest, the eternal flat, the small-town campus, the Catholicism, the insomnia, the March grayness. The other part of you will be weeping come graduation–no more poetry on Friday nights, no more swing dancing till midnight, no more drawing dragons in the writing center walls, no more of those intensely personal discussions on German literature and philosophy that are changing the way you see the world. The way the sun hits the windows of the faculty building when you walk to your 8am Roman Literature course–blood-orange, in-your-eyes because of the flat horizon. You will miss that. It’s the end of something stunning, this leave-taking of an intellectual community from which you have learned and against which you have fought, and which you have loved for the past four years.

And behind it all is the waiting. Everyone is getting job offers, being accepted to graduate school, making wedding plans and looking at apartments. For you, though, everything is entirely up in the air–applications to grad schools in Germany aren’t even open yet, you have no idea where you will be, you have no idea if you will just end up sitting at home next year with all sorts of failed plans. Those scholarship programs you applied to six months ago are probably going to leave you hanging until you go crazy, and you won’t hear anything positive anyway. You listen to Bach and lots of bad pop music.

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And then suddenly, you aren’t waiting any more. The morning that you know you will finally hear something, you take a walk into town in the freezing wind, to try to calm yourself down. Revel in it–these are the last few hours when the possibilities are still infinite.

And then suddenly there’s an email, and it’s not from the Fulbright at all, but from that other program you applied to and really never thought you’d get–the one that will send you to Germany for two whole years, the one that will give you more money than you’ve ever had to get a Masters in Comparative Literature somewhere in Bavaria. That one. And you’ve won it–the highest stipend they give. The possibilities are still infinite. The enigmatic German professor practically starts crying when you tell him, and denies everything when you try to say that he wrote your letter of recommendation and your language evaluation and thus deserves as much of the credit as anyone. The world is insane.

Everything happens very fast–call everyone, cancel the summer job, look at apartment prices, email Germanistik departments, learn more about German geography in a week than you have in the past three years. By the end of the week, you are emotionally exhausted–shocked, overwhelmingly grateful. It still doesn’t seem quite real, but when you call the scholarship office in New York City they know your name.

In exactly three months, you will be flying to Europe.

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Photography from my incredibly talented sister.

Being: Summer 2013

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It is a strange and contradictory summer.

Part of the time, you are entirely, freeingly unacademic. You bang down dirt roads in a rusted-out truck with no muffler and no inspection sticker, dust towering behind you. The windows are permanently rolled down, country radio permanently turned up. You help throw 300 haybales off a wagon and stack them in the barn, you set up sheep fencing, you learn how to drive the John Deere. Your father is building an outdoor oven in the garden behind the house, and you spend the last hour before dark with your little brother, balancing on top of the dome to apply the final layer of stucco. You both feel like giants, silhouetted against such a wide evening sky.

You work–six days a week as the vegetarian cook at a local farm and riding school. Up at 5:30 every morning, heat from three ovens on your face, to run a tight ship and bleach things and kill flies only when your Buddhist boss isn’t looking. You order quinoa in bulk and learn an astonishing number of ways to cook tofu. You play opera at all hours of the day, turned up as high as it will go, and make a few Cecilia Bartoli fans. You listen to talk radio, and try desperately to understand something of politics. And to your delight, you find a tiny community of intellectuals at this small Vermont farm. There is Jenn, the self-professed Feminazi, and Peter, the yogi, undergraduate degree from 70s Berkeley. You stand in the kitchen at six in the morning, pancakes burning behind you, and talk about psychoanalysis and gender roles and comparative religion with all of your might. It is a great gathering-in of perspectives, a time to ask a thousand questions you can’t ask anywhere else.

And you write. You live half in the future, on the other side of the grad school and Fulbright applications you agonize over.  You want to be in Germany, you want to get out of mid-western American academia, you want to already have your PhD and be the teacher of some students at some college, somewhere. You draw up a sort of intellectual creed for your future self, wildly romantic. Pursue REAL scholarship, the most rigorous there is, not watered down or “friendly.” Never take the easy way out. Only the exhaustive is truly interesting. Engage DIRECTLY with real ideas, texts, thinkers, the most meaningful that exist–no hiding behind secondary literature, behind works that are technically interesting but say nothing about the human soul. Focus on the connections, the dialogue, between whole genres, epochs, minds. Look the hardest ideas in the face, actively pursue Truth. The ultimate goal of scholarship must be teaching, otherwise it becomes something monstrous. Shrink from specialization. Be charitable. Be humble, but not self-effacing. Turn outwards. Elegance, humanism, joy, admiration ALWAYS.

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You start to realize how much of an idealist you are–the world is always marvelous and beautiful, even when it is horrifying. Most people are genuine and wish you well, and you wish them well in return with all your heart. Scholarship and academia and philosophy are toweringly meaningful, lovely realms. You will revel in everything, even if you are rather solitary and overworked and sometimes terrified.

The windows are flying open again, and behind it all are the lyrics of a song from a pretty exceptional band, which you listen to almost as often as the Cecilia Bartoli.

Keep the earth below my feet

For all my sweat, my blood runs weak.

Let me learn from where I have been–

Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn

Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn.

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Photography, as always, from Anna.

Being: Fulbright II

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAHere is the second part of my ETA Fulbright application–the Statement of Purpose. It’s a bit more business-like than the first, but perhaps of interest to other applicants. This whole process has put all other writing projects on hold…I should be back to normal posting next week. The picture is from one lovely day in Munich last summer.

My love of Germany began with opera and old books–Wagner and Thomas Mann, specifically, revelled in over the course of three long highschool summers. It was heady stuff, and by the time I graduated I had erected a sort of German Mythos, all leitmotiv and Rhine rivers and half-mad artists. It was toweringly beautiful, I found, but essentially unreal, disconnected from the questions and concerns of the 21st century.

Now, nearly four years later, I feel like the Mythos has transferred into reality. I have learned German, spent time abroad, sought above all to ground my love of old art in contemporary existence. Last spring, I sat at a conference on modern Germany and realized what draws me to the country as it is today: it was the willingness of the panelists to engage with difficult issues head-on, the transparency,* the urgency behind the questions they were posing. This wasn’t distant academia–here were real people and concerns, sometimes uncomfortably close. Land, race, language, memory. What do those things mean today, and how do they shape who we are? We ask ourselves the same sort of questions in America, of course. In Germany, however, the discussion seems often to be more more critical, the answers brought into sharper focus because of Germany’s historical heritage and current position in Europe.

In the end, then, this is why I am applying for an ETA in Germany–not only for the beauty of their art, but because the important questions there are so pressing. The country today seems to serve as sort of catalyst for the hard questions, for investigations which can then be turned around to reflect on issues in America and elsewhere.

As a student of languages interested in pursuing education as a career, I am thrilled for the opportunities of growth and service the ETA provides. I bring almost ten years of teaching experience to the program, and a fascination with the methods of pedagogy that goes back to childhood. As a homeschooled student, I was encouraged to translate the academic into the personal, to observe what worked and what didn’t at the most concrete level. This early experience made clear to me the power of individualized, hands-on learning. Today, my job in the Writing Center is teaching me the value of real Socratic dialogue and conversation, my position as a German tutor the skill of simplicity and conciseness. As the co-director of the Latin program at a local school, finally, I have learned the importance of organization: education, however inspired, can hardly be effective without the framework of well-defined goals and curricula.

Today, I seek to bring these qualities–personalization, dialogue, simplicity, organization–to whatever teaching situation I find myself in. In a program like the ETA, however, I would add one more element: an ongoing, inclusive discussion of US culture and politics. As a participant in my college’s required courses on America’s historical, intellectual, and political heritage, I have had excellent models for this sort of exchange. While in Germany, I would be honored to serve as a representative of both the US and the Fulbright by helping students draw connections between their experiences and my own.

Outside of the classroom, I hope to continue to pursue the vital questions connected with the study of German thought. I am and always will be fascinated by 19th- and early 20th-century music, literature, and philosophy. In the end, however, there is always something discomfiting about my study of old art–a feeling that, by taking it all so seriously, I am disconnecting myself from the issues of today. With these concerns in mind, while in Germany I would like to examine the heritage of creators like Wagner and Mann in the context of the 21st century. How do these figures continue to be a part of the cultural and political dialogues of today? Most importantly, how are current German thinkers building on their legacy, and how are they moving beyond? In answering these questions I will seek real involvement wherever I am placed in Germany, especially in contemporary artistic, cultural, and academic circles.

Bieto ParsifalCalixto Bieito’s 2010 production of Parsifal, for instance. This is Richard Wagner in the 21st century–hard-hitting, painful, real. Perhaps ludicrous. Wo ist Gott?

Such a project will not only offer me a platform for social engagement while an ETA, but also lay the groundwork for further studies in the country. I intend to pursue a Masters in Comparative Literature in Germany, before returning to America for a PhD in Germanistik. With the experience gained as a Fulbrighter, I will be better equipped to one day teach languages and literature at an American university, and able to bring a more holistic perspective to the study of German art, literature, and thought–both the old and the new.

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*This theme of transparency in contemporary Germany is fascinating to me, and seems to play out at all sorts of different levels, art and academia aside. Scroll down this post from last summer, for instance, to pictures of the Reichstag and other government buildings in Berlin, architectural mirrors of the same clarity and openness.

Being: Fulbright

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The below is a reasonably polished draft of my personal statement for the Fulbright Scholarship Program, specifically their English Teaching Assistantship–an opportunity almost impossible to attain, but too gleaming to pass up. It would place me in a German school for a year, teaching English to high school students, with a full stipend and time for outside research and study. And doors opened to me for further study in the United States or abroad. I can’t not try. The photograph is taken from my front porch.

In his Glasperlenspiel, Hermann Hesse defines vocation as a Call and an Admonition. It is a Call, he writes, because to experience one’s vocation is first to experience a summons from without, whether in the form of an idea, event, or another human being. This meeting of self and the world, he continues, brings with it an Admonition–the one called now has a charge to make good on it, to reach out to others as he or she was once reached out to. Vocation is both a gift and a commandment, and as such has the power to shape a career and a life.

My vocation is to teach. I define the word in its broadest sense: to share knowledge, to bring into dialogue and create conversation, to give others something that will shake them up and force them to see the world in a slightly different way. To engage in the pursuit of knowledge with the goal of giving it all back one day.

I’ve always had the passion, I think, though things were once more complicated. Homeschooled on a mountain farm in Vermont, I had few opportunities in highschool to engage in the sort of intensive academic dialogue I was looking for. I grew up surrounded by a supportive family and exhilaratingly lovely physical space, but my intellect was a closed loop–impatient, grasping, restless. Though I listened and talked and read, my desire to teach had nowhere to go.

Still, I tried. I hosted a series of “Symposiums” for siblings and family members, where I delivered pretentiously-titled lectures on joy in Nietzsche and early psychoanalysis. I read books my parents would not have approved of, and then blew my cover because I had to talk about them. I found online forums where I could write page-long posts about stage production in German opera. Outside of school, I led tours and taught fiber arts classes on our farm to hundreds of children and adults from around the world. But it wasn’t enough—by my senior year I was making myself crazy with excess intellectual energy, on the edge of serious depression and academically horribly lonely.

After all of that, stepping onto my college campus was like stepping into the sun. This was Hesse’s Call—suddenly there were hands reaching out, pulling me alongside, giving me a place to stand and more opportunities than I could take advantage of. The intellectual dialogue that had existed for me only in the ideal world became suddenly vital, something I could take hold of as a career and a future.

It was at college, then, that I fell fully in love with teaching. Today, as a rising senior I have my own third-grade Latin classroom at a local Preparatory School, spend my evenings working in the Writing Center, hash out adjective endings and coach oral exams as a German tutor. I take students to the opera and talk about politics and music, sit on undergraduate conference panels on Greek tragedy or 20th century Germany. A professor told me last semester, “Don’t go into teaching unless you have a fire in your belly.” I do, I said, and this is where I want to be.

And what about the future? I hope to continue my studies and someday teach at the college level. Wherever I end up, however, education will always be for me as much a career as a life philosophy. Firstly, because I have always found that teaching, along with being an artist, is of all the professions the most hopeful: it begins with the understanding that there is something in mankind worth passing on, and those worth passing it on to. That, to me, is the root of all humanism, of all true creation and scholarship. And secondly, because the worldview behind education leaves so much room for awe, curiosity, and humility. There is something both incredibly humbling and beautiful about working with the human mind, about seeking to unlock its potential for admiration and understanding.

Above all, though, I want to teach because of the second part of Hermann Hesse’s definition–the Admonition, the commandment. For me, it’s not enough just to be grateful to those professors who sought me out when I was very much alone. I want to offer something in return for their investment. And so I would be honored for the chance to reach out to other young people, to talk to them, to let them speak when they are trying to say something. In the end, teaching does not just or even primarily have to do with imparting knowledge–it is also about giving others the tools they need and the opportunity to articulate a voice.

This, I think, is what it means to make the pursuit of knowledge unrelentingly, magnificently personal.