Being: Winter Semester

It rains all the time in the Rhine Valley. Dripping, foggy, penetrating damp, Tag ein Tag aus–you would take the coldest of Vermont winters over this.

At the same time, though, it makes the sun all the more beautiful. You wake up to bright clear skies one morning and skip out on an entire day of studying to walk in the city, and to find out how the stained glass windows in the churches look with sun behind them.

They look glorious, by the way.

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St. Stephanskirche, Mainz

It’s strange, this being in a foreign country. Most of the time it all feels normal, more or less like living at home, but then some little thing happens and the strangeness of it all is brought back to you. Sometimes you go outside in the morning and are shocked that people aren’t speaking your native language. It takes several seconds to remember where you are. You keep forgetting the small things–that lines in the supermarket move 10x faster than they do in America, that no one wants to help you in the clothing store, that you won’t be able to do any banking on Friday afternoons because the German motto is work smarter, not longer.

It’s the different conception of academia that shocks you the most, though. Your university–37,000 students, some 150 institutes–is worlds away from the tiny college you graduated from last spring. Part of it’s good–students in Germany have much more freedom, are treated like adults with the ability to plan their own time and think for themselves. But it’s the apathy that gets you.

For instance: your Herr Dr. Professor–widely published, with his own wikipedia page, applauded by the students at the end of every lecture–is teaching Hamlet. He never smiles in class, seems rather bored by the whole affair. You want to go and shake him at the end of the day and say, “This is a privilege, this! Don’t you see–you are so privileged, so lucky, so blessed to be able to teach this text, to be able to teach at all! The existence of Hamlet is a miracle. The fact that you have a job where you get to read Hamlet every day is also a miracle.”

It’s good, though, too, because you now see what you want to spend the rest of your life fighting against: apathy, boredom, this brand of tired post-modernism that sees the entire world as a deconstruction of a deconstruction of a deconstruction. You want to teach with personality, dammit, in a place where you can sit across the desk from your students and talk about beauty and art like they really matter.

Here in Germany, you have the feeling that the professors think you smile too much in class. But how can one not smile–Hamlet is Hamlet. And apathy aside, it’s good to be here. The cathedrals are still glorious.

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: Writing Center

still-life-writing-tableStill Life Writing Table, William Michael Harnett

This was supposed to be finished and posted a month ago, while I was still at college, which is of course where this is set. Finals Week and Goethe Institut exams put an end to that. Here ’tis.

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You work at the Writing Center, and you love it.

The place is a little sanctuary in the ancient basement of the Old Union, full of MLA handbooks and half-drunk mugs of coffee and tea. The entire side wall is a blackboard, scrawled with thesis diagrams, pictures of phoenixes, and the usual quotes from Eliot and Shakespeare. Words, words, words. And the Fire and the Rose are one. During Finals’ Week some witty Latinist replaced the diagrams with a line from Virgil’s Aenead: Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit. And perhaps someday you will rejoice to remember even this.

You and the other tutors play at being half-psychologist-half-Socrates. You are only allowed to ask questions, absolutely no being “directive,” as the crazy bearded English professor who runs the place informs you. If the students cry on your watch, well then, that is their own fault and not yours. They should have started their papers earlier. He has no pity for criers, nor did he when he himself was an undergrad Writer Center tutor. Things were tough, back in the day.

When it comes to the tutoring sessions, you are quite run-of-the-mill. Tell me what you think about Odysseus, give me a thesis, what do you know about commas, have you considered that your textual evidence is worse than non-existent? Contrary to the English Professor’s creed, you can’t help but feel sorry for the sniffling freshmen on their third all-nighter, twelve hours to go before class and only a half-cocked thesis to go on. You give them tissues, and remind them that they are here to engage in the lofty pursuit of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, not to lose their sanity over a looming C- on a Smith paper. Such a line of argument is rarely successful.

Some of your fellow tutors are more, well, novel in their methods. Daniel manages to terrify every student who signs up for him, even the Honors’ kids, by conducting his sessions perched on the back of a chair while bouncing a tennis ball maniacally off the edge of the table–already balding at the age of 23, bow-tie disheveled, always smelling a little of pipe smoke and whiskey. Somehow he is able to turn each 20-minute session into a monologue on Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet, whether the paper at hand is on Homer or Dante or twentieth-century aestheticism. You and the other tutors are awed and a bit frightened by his ability to do this.

When there are no students, however, you talk. Professors, grad school, Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare. And Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet, of course. Lots of that. You know to stay away from the topic of women in academia, because you don’t want to hear again that your only options are getting married and raising a family. There is always someone being converted to Catholicism outside in the hall. There are always debates on the validity of Cormac McCarthy. One night before Finals’ Week, you all read the Ghost scene aloud. The time is out of joint….oh, that ever I was born to set it right. What was he talking about?

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For the past month, the senior Honors students have been writing their theses. They have taken up the four “cells” at the end of the center, the normally tidy blue rooms with just space to set a laptop. Now they are full of old pizza boxes, pipe tobacco, icons, prayer books, crucifixes, stacks and stacks of books–Elizabethan England, Aesthetics, Bonhoeffer, T.S. Eliot, The Sublime. Someone took the whiteboard markers and drew a hundred pictures of fat cats all over the glass windows. It was probably Karl, who is rather obsessed with cats. The college-aged mind’s innate surrealism never ceases to amaze you.

Travis has the most orderly cell. He, double major in Classics and History, buzzed up on gallons of bad free coffee from the Career Center, is having a FANTASTIC thesis writing experience. He informs everyone of this fact at least six times each evening. He is writing on Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is AMAZING, EVERYONE should LOVE him, he CAN’T BELIEVE how brilliant he is, isn’t it WONDERFUL to be able to write such a thing as a thesis?? He finishes his final draft a week early. This is hard for the rest of the thesis-writers to stomach.

Daniel takes it particularly hard. Fifty pages behind, in disagreement with his adviser, he has started sitting under his desk because the lowness of the position matches the increasingly-penitential nature of the whole undertaking. He is desperately regretting giving up both cigarettes and beer for Lent. His various mutterings are becoming ever more incoherent.

“Chaos…chaos…why is my brain full of chaos? Why is every paper I write on Hamlet? Chaos, I tell you……”

Rachel, the kindest of the tutors who bakes cookies for the weeping freshmen, is concerned. “Do you want consolation or an answer? Or tea? How about some tea?” But there aren’t any clean mugs left.

He caves the night before his defense and smokes a cigarette, Lent be damned. This prompts an existential crisis the following morning, and a hasty trip to confession. But his defense is brilliant, and you tell him you think he is going to be fine. You are all going to be fine, actually, you say, when you meet in the Center one last time after everything is over, to clean the blackboard and wash a semesters’ worth of stale coffee out of the mugs. You will rejoice at even this. You know because you are already rejoicing.