Thursday, October 17, 2019

Lesson Plan



I’ve got no time and less energy right now, it being the day before fall break, so instead of writing a post, enjoy this lesson plan I wrote for Americorps this summer!

  • Start the lesson by telling the kids, “raise your hand if you have a good memory.” (Probably a lot of them will jump up, raising their hands and rattling off things they remember. Let this go on for a little bit, but then quiet them down.) Then tell them, “Okay, it’s good that so many of you have good memories, because something very important is about to happen, and I need all of you to remember it exactly.”
  • Someone walks into the room with a pink flowerpot on their head. They have socks on their hands and a blue shirt on backwards. They walk to the floor, do a push-up and a jumping jack, and walk around the room counter-clockwise while saying, “I don’t want to eat plant food! My mom says I have to, even though it makes me sick and gassy and I’m pretty sure the little white bits are poisonous. But I don’t want to! I’d rather eat spaghetti, which I used to call noodles until my English teacher in fourteenth grade told me that it’s always best to use the least silly word for everything, so that everyone knows you’re a dull and pretentious person.” I’ll provide all the props, and hopefully we’ll have a printout of the script so whoever does it doesn’t have to memorize it. The actual details aren’t that important, so long as it’s all extremely specific and random.
  • Ask the kids to describe what they just saw, and write what they say on the board. After establishing the broad details, ask for specifics. Ask what he said he didn’t want to eat, or what exercise he did when he walked in, or what color the pot on his head was.
  • After we have a comprehensive list, have the person who did the random walking rant come in and go over what exactly the kids got right or wrong. Probably, they’ll have the broad strokes right but the specifics wrong.
  • Explain to the kids that no one can remember everything. And if they had so much trouble remembering so soon after something so memorable had happened, imagine how much they would forget for things that happened days or weeks or years ago. That’s why it’s important to keep a journal: because, inevitably, you forget what you thought or how you felt. But a journal, which is a book you write in every day about your feelings, is sort of like a better memory, a memory that can’t forget or misremember. Tell them, “Of course, it’s not so important if you don’t remember what costume [SLICK member] was wearing today. But what if you forgot something really important, or found out something about yourself that you can only find by looking back? To show this, we’ve come up with a couple scenarios for you.”
  • For each scenario:
  1. Read the scenario out loud.
  2. Ask what the person might be forgetting.
  3. Ask what they would learn by reading their older journal entries.
  4. Ask what the person in the scenario should do.
(Also, clarify that it’s okay to feel angry or sad sometimes, a journal isn’t supposed to fix your emotions. Rather, it’s supposed to help you look at the big picture and learn more about yourself).

Scenario 1
Curt keeps a journal. One day, he writes down, “Wow, I can’t believe I saw Minecraft: The Movie on its midnight premiere! They managed to capture the fun of spending all day and night mining, and made it into a movie that was only five hours long! I sure will be tired when I get to school tomorrow, but it sure was worth it!” The next day, he writes, “Ugh. I totally failed my math test today. I could barely keep my eyes open, and the numbers didn’t make any sense. Mom said she’d unplug the computer and throw it into the gorge if I brought back one more bad grade, so I guess that Minecraft I saw last night will be the last I’ll see of it for a while.” One year later, he writes, “I can’t wait to see Minecraft: The Movie II: Quest for More Wood tomorrow! I’ve missed Minecraft so much ever since mom threw my computer into the gorge! Of course, I have a history test tomorrow, but I’ll be fine. I don’t need much sleep, and I’m really great at winging tests.”

Scenario 2
Angelina keeps a journal. One day, she writes, “I’m so sad! Julie’s dad got a new job spying on the Amish, and now her dad has to move all the way to Ohio! I won’t see her at school or on soccer team anymore, and I can’t even text or call or email her, because if they catch her using modern technology, her dad’s cover will be blown and she might get shunned! Julie is my best friend, what will I do?” A month later, she writes, “Writing letters with Julie is great! It’s so fun keeping her up to date on the drama at school, and she’s been telling me all about the barn raisings she’s gone to! In some ways, it’s almost better than having her around, because it feels so special every time I get a letter from her.” Two years later, she writes, “Today has been the worst day of my life! This morning, mom said that we have to move to Florida, and I only have a week to say goodbye to all of my friends here at school! What will I do? I won’t know anyone there, and I’ll never get to see any of my old friends ever again!”

Scenario 3
Amanda keeps a journal. One day, she writes, “I’m really lucky to have a family as good as mine. Dad always lets me play with his scuba gear, Mom has the best stories from her detective agency, and my brother Garrett makes the best fajitas in the world! Yesterday, the kids at the lunch table were talking about how they hoped they were long-lost princes and princesses who had real royal families looking for them. I told them all that I wouldn’t choose any other family in the world but my own.” A week later, she writes, “I just found out that I’m adopted! And my fake mom and dad weren’t even planning on telling me until I turned eighteen! They only told me because there’s a viral video of my real mom getting way too emotional when hugging a mascot at Disneyland going around, and if I saw it I might realize that I look just like her. Garrett knew, of course. They tell him everything, because he’s their real son. How can they even love me, if I’m not their real daughter? That’s a trick question, because they don’t.”

Scenario 4 
(Skip if time is short, it’s even more jokey than the rest)
Thomas keeps a journal. One day, he writes, “Looking through old boxes of Christmas ornaments in the attic, I found an ancient prophecy scroll about me. Apparently, on my tenth birthday a demon will appear in the form of an enormous bull-headed serpent and tempt me to open a magical door that appears in my wall. If I do, apparently I’ll be transported to a land of nightmares where I’ll suffer in eternal agony. Pretty cool what you find in the attic sometimes.” On his tenth birthday, he writes, “This has been the best birthday ever! All my friends and I went to Adventureland, then I came home and opened my presents. I got a ton of great Lego sets! And then, when I thought the day couldn’t get any better, a giant snake with the head of a bull appeared in my bedroom and told me that I’d live forever in bliss and happiness if I opened a new door in my wall. This is so great! I’m just taking a moment to write this before I turn the handle.”


  • After the scenarios, make little journals by stapling together half-sheets of paper (I’ll bring them). If there’s time, color the front covers with their happiest memory.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Archiving


I just spent twenty minutes turning my collected notes from the middle school English classroom observation into a really terrible scrapbook. It’s a mess of scraps and staples and tape. The handwritten bits are nearly indecipherable and the printed pages are ordered 1-3-2-4. I could’ve done a cleaner job of it, and if I were doing this for a grade I’m sure I would. But compiling all these notes into one journal is just something I did for fun, and I decided against taking an extra five minutes to make it look halfway decent because I want it to look like something the middle schoolers I’m observing will scoff at. Ancient and important texts rarely come in neatly stacked 12-point-font pages with one-inch-margins and page numbers, after all. They’ve got texture, stains, damage, missing parts. And, even though I know that it’s arrogant, that it distracts me from getting my words themselves to be the best that they can be, I always want my writing to have that wonderful feeling of decay.

My classes have accidentally hit on a bit of an archival motif, all at the same time, that has gotten me thinking about this more than usual lately. In Humanities we’re reading most of Sappho’s work, which isn’t hard because only 650 of the 10,000 lines she wrote survived. Much of our discussion is guesswork, imagining what might have filled the missing lines, which gives her writing a half-cloaked majesty that Homer never had. 

Meanwhile, in my fiction seminar, we’re reading Valeria Luiselli’s novel Lost Children Archive. A little ways past the halfway point, I’m not sure what I think about the book yet. It’s about a woman and her family who drive to Arizona to document the lives of migrant children held in detention centers, focusing on an important issue, but in a removed and philosophical way that seems as distanced from the horror as any newspaper article. Still, in that emphasis on archiving there’s a bit that appeals to me. The story is regularly interrupted to catalogue the various boxes of the archivist family. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s a thrill in the simple action of turning a page to open a box, the same sort of thrill as unwrapping a present. I guess that’s what I want my writing to be to some reader: mysterious, somehow, like lost documents or buried treasure, something to be uncovered and explored. That’s why so many of my drafts are marked-up print-outs and lined pages in my terrible handwriting taped together, even though it means I have to go through the long and dubiously helpful process of typing it all up: because opening a box of messy pages is a lot more fun than opening a computer file.

A couple weeks ago I posted about a student film that I’d officially abandoned. Once I was finished, I printed that post out, put it in with the marked-up script drafts, notes, and revision flowcharts. Then I put it in a shoebox, taped the whole thing up, and decided to bury it under mounds of other forgotten crap in the basement when I go home for fall break, hoping it will someday be excavated, that it will have meaning to someone later that it doesn’t to anyone now.

There’s a problem with writing for future historians, though. A lot of problems, but one specific to our time: there’s just so much information. The preciousness of a few tattered pages depends on most other pages being lost or decomposed by the time anyone bothers to look. But, barring some apocalyptic world-wide hard drive wipe, future generations are liable to know way too much about us. It feels like everyone is writing more and more, and there are more and more people to begin with, so what are the odds that anything I make will stick around and be remembered?


I’m starting to sound like some fringe academic sect my dad told me about once, people who thought public education had gone too far and a perfect world would go back to having literacy be a rare commodity. I dismissed them back then a little more easily than I can dismiss them now, because that sort of arrogance is more compelling now that I know how hard it is to have your writing read. But I need to realize that more things being saved also gives everyone better odds of being remembered. So I’ll fantasize about being archived like I always do, hoping it’ll someday come true. And I’ll keep up my ridiculous education scrapbook, because it’s fun and mostly harmless.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Autumnal Madness


It’s October. I’m consistently exhausted by cross country practices, but the end of the season is close enough in sight to hold in. I’m coming down with something, not anything to keep me out of class, but a little runny nose or cough or sore throat, accompanied by the stuffy head and slight disorientation and vivid dreams that tend to accompany these little illnesses. It’s getting colder without ever getting cold, lots of rainy or windy or foggy days. I’m watching something nostalgic, maybe that Ghibli movie that I saw at a birthday party in fourth grade and loved so much without ever quite knowing what was going on. And I have a powerful urge to write fantasy. It’s like this every year.

I’m not sure if that makes sense to anyone but me. Reading drafts for a literary magazine, I know well that there’s a real danger in assuming what is meaningful for you is meaningful for everyone. So maybe I should unpack that a little bit. October always feels a little haunted for me, and not just because of Halloween. (I’d actually bet that the feeling of October makes Halloween feel haunted, not the other way around). I’m always in these altered states: a little delirious from a subtle illness, exhausted from running, confused by how fast I’ve settled into a school routine and how the summer I thought had just arrived slipped out from under me. It’s an in-between time, not fully grim or lively. In that moment of disorientation between seasons I feel like I can see into some other world, and it’s a world that I really want to write about. 

And, like I said, this feeling comes every year. And it goes, usually before Thanksgiving. Which is a shame, because I feel like I could do a lot with this half-conscious creative energy. It’s odd describing fall as a manic period when most people are settling in for winter, but that’s usually what it is for me: my imagination soars and I spend my long runs crafting fantastical stories that I don’t think I’d have the courage to try any other time of the year. I’m prone to bouts of obsession on certain ideas any time of the year, but fall seems especially bad, maybe because it only properly feels like fall for such a short time. 

I spent all the time to lay out this vague dilemma because I have a very specific one facing me right now. There’s a novel, the one I posted about finishing last summer, that I’m just now returning to. It’s bad, worse than I expected, rambling and aimless and full of tangled subplots that don’t last two scenes and never add up to much of anything. Refining it into something that matches my original vision for it would take long, careful work, the sort that builds character in a writer but doesn’t seem like much fun. Or I could take the story in a bizarre new direction, one that seems brilliant, but might end up just as rambling and aimless and tangled as what came before, only now less inhibited. I think it’s a good idea now, but I’ve been caught up in swells of inspiration often enough to know that the route to the end goal is never as straight or clear as it appears.

So what will I do? I’m not entirely sure yet, but I think I’ll go with the new idea. Because I have the rest of my life for the slow, careful work of a writer, but spur-of-the-moment kicks like this only come around in this liminal season. I won’t say that it’s good advice for anyone, but I think I’ve laid out plenty of reasons in this post why I’m not the best advisor anyway: I’m exhausted and sick and drunk on some kind of fall-season madness that I don’t think anyone else actually gets. But it won’t last long, so why not take it for all it’s worth.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Stories and Theory


Despite it’s unenviable timeslot of seven-to-ten on Monday nights, my fiction seminar is quickly becoming my favorite class in my time at Grinnell. That shouldn’t be surprising, given my interests, but what it surprising is that one of my highest level classes at Grinnell is also the least pretentious, the most welcoming. We read a novel every week and spend the class discussing it, no theory besides what people come up with on their own, no oneupmanship over who’s the best read, just people sharing their experiences with fiction. Maybe that casual vibe isn’t an anomaly, but more of a reward for getting through the denser classes. We’ve proven that we love this stuff, now they’ve finally given us free reign to just love it without stamping in some arbitrary quote from Foucault in every paragraph of our essays.

My love for the fiction seminar becomes all the clearer when I realize how hard it can be to get through the theory for my Gender, Sex, and Critical Theory class this semester. Unlike my fiction professor, whose course selection was basically just his all-time favorite novels, my critical theory professor assigns articles that he knows we’ll hate, that he personally hates, but that we need to know anyway because these are the works of the scholars that academia has decided to deify for some reason. Most of the time the prose is needlessly dense but the ideas are good, if a little hard to apply to actual human living. But sometimes it’s so bad that I just can’t help but rant. For example, the chapter “The Future is Kids Stuff” by Lee Edelman, the introduction to his book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. 

Basically, he thinks that we should stop caring about the future so much. That making a better world for our children is stupid. That, because gay people cannot reproduce (totally ignoring that a gay relationship where one person is trans can reproduce, and that gay people can raise children and should have more opportunities to adopt) all queer people should be part of a death drive and tear down the dominant culture in some highly abstract and functionally useless form of revolution. Maybe I, a straight cisgender person, shouldn’t comment on a piece intended for a queer audience, but so many queer people in my class were enraged by this article that I feel like I’m free to give Edelman a piece of my mind. He says that he wants the queer to represent everything that the worst fundamental preachers fears that it is, to destroy the very idea of building a better future for future generations. Building a better future is a tool of the dominant discourse, according to him, and therefore it should be completely annihilated, without a thought for what should replace it. That’s what gets me the angriest: that he wants to destroy our societal love for children without replacing anything with it. “I do not intend to propose some ‘good’ that will thereby be assured,” he writes. “To the contrary, I mean to insist that nothing, and certainly not what we call the ‘good,’ can ever have any assurance at all in the order of the Symbolic.” Never mind making a world where children feel free to express their own gender identity and love whoever they want; just burn it all. That’s what I really hate about theory: these scholars complain and problematize back and forth, then problematize each other’s complaints. It’s not their job to fix it, apparently, wallowing in it is a day’s work in itself.

But maybe I should pull back. Because I’m not sure I’d be much happier if Edelman did propose some kind of good to come out of all this. When these theories promise some good at the end of all the criticism, the good never feels real. Marxist endgame, for example, never holds much appeal. If our work, our entertainment, our families, and nearly everything else is all based on capitalism, and therefore must be destroyed, then what does that leave in the utopia, exactly? If you structure your worldview out of the problems you see in it, then there’s not much world left for you if you ever get around to fixing it.

I don’t want to dismiss theory out of hand, because it’s done a lot of good for a lot of people, particularly those less privileged than me. But it gets hard not to, when the problems it presents are unfixable, and the best hope for a happy future hardly seems worth achieving. But the one time when theory feels real to me (and the reason why I’m enjoying my Critical Theory class, despite all my whining) is when it’s coupled with some kind of narrative. Because then it’s not just floating in the mind of some author, held up by long words and quotes from a couple deified scholars. With stories it’s real, it’s personal. It’s connected with characters who feel real, or with people who are. That’s theory’s place, I think: not to replace stories, but to come up against them, to allow for deeper understandings, even if the importance of the stories can never be reduced to something so general. 


I don’t want to say that stories need theory like theory needs stories, mostly because I like believing that the stories I write stand on their own, or at least with a little support from genre trappings and good fiction teaching. But maybe the reason why the fiction seminar is so good in the first place is because we all made it through the theory classes. We’ve learned the stuff until it’s a paradigm, a way to filter and reconstruct stories without even thinking. I won’t say so definitively because, again, I don’t want to give theory any more credit than it’s worth. But here it is, you can take it or leave it.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

All the Work I've Abandoned


I like decking my walls in plot maps and revision charts and progress calendars and all sorts of other writing paraphernalia that I never actually use but that make my writing space feel properly cluttered. Taking these decorations down is usually something triumphant, a mark that I’ve finished writing or editing a novel and am ready to move on to something new. But a couple minutes ago I took down my collection of messy and useless paper, and for once it wasn’t triumphant at all. Relieving, a little bit, but mostly sad that I’d abandoned something I’d spent a year and a half, four major drafts (comprised of twelve minor ones), and a whole lot of brainpower on. 

I won’t tell you too much about the exact nature of the project, except that it was a full-length movie I planned to film in Grinnell over fall break this year. None of the writing projects that I’ve let go have ever felt this permanent before. Usually I just take a day off, fully intending to come back to it tomorrow, but then by tomorrow I have some other idea and follow that instead. Or, more often, I write a terrible ending just so I can say that I’ve finished it, then leave it to rot in my hard drive. But this abandonment feels real. Fall break will pass, and then the rest of the year, and once I’m not a student anymore I doubt I’ll have an opportunity to film scenes written for specific dorms and academic buildings. 

Granted, I never really had an opportunity to film those scenes in the first place. I found out that my script didn’t have a prayer when I showed it to some friends with actual experience in theater and filmmaking, who told me that making this, as a full-time student, with a cast and crew of full-time students, with no budget, allowing for only seven days of shooting, would be asking one miracle too many. I guess I never really thought of it like that, I was just seeing the end of each new draft as its own triumph and hoping that people who knew what they were doing would take over once I was done writing. In a way, it really makes me appreciate the simplicity of writing: that a story, created by a single person with as little as a twenty-cent pen and a dollar notebook, could be as captivating as a movie which might take the population and economy of a mid-sized town to make. Still, I made this project to make the most of its medium, playing with effects that couldn’t be done in any other medium. And now that I find out that the medium is too expensive and time-consuming for anyone without funds to do much with (which really should’ve been obvious from the start), I don’t know what to do with all the paper I generated, all the ideas I poured into this. 


But I shouldn’t give myself too much of a pity party. After all, yesterday my fiction professor went on a little self-deprecating monologue about how writing is perhaps the worst per-hour work there is. Apparently he’s written thousands of pages that are beyond salvaging, four entire novels that he’s scrapped entirely. Granted, publishing three out of a total seven is very good, especially if you consider that I’m standing at a score of zero-to-six right now (not counting novellas, short stories, scripts, etc.) but I think he’s getting at something larger about the work of writing. I spent three months and hundreds of hours on my first novel, and writing the last couple words felt like standing on top of a tower I’d built from nothing and getting dizzy from the height. Then three days later the tower collapsed when I skimmed through what I’d written and deemed it all garbage. So I built another tower on top of the ruins of the first, and got a good long look before it collapsed too. After writing every night for five years now, I like to think that my towers don’t collapse much anymore, just shatter and wobble a little bit. But, if I have to be honest with myself, every first draft I’ve ever done is a tower in pieces. If I took this same strategy to civil engineering, I’d probably be in prison for gross negligence by now. At the very least, I’ve probably got something clinical for thinking that my next tower will stand on its own next time when I consider my track record. But I have to believe that in my next story I’ll have the right tact and get the damn thing to work for once. Because reasonable expectations are poison to a creative writer. And I’ve heard that, if you apply the same faulty formula over and over and over again, sooner or later it’s bound to work.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Cross Country, Greek Epics, and an Ode to the Freemans


As I mentioned last week, I’ve been reading The Iliad for my humanities class this semester. Considering that I have to read at a rate of two or three thousand lines of dense poetry a day to keep up with assignments, it only makes sense that I should skim the less important parts, like when Homer goes on and on about each individual soldier in Achilles’s battalions or lists how man one-off characters Hektor killed. But, unlike similar archaic lists of names like the endless genealogies in the book of Genesis, I can’t bring myself not to read each individual word, and to dwell on each a little bit. That’s because Homer doesn’t simply list names, he gives these throwaway footnotes stories. Small stories, stories that don’t really matter, but just enough of a story to imagine that they were a real person, that their death meant something in the enormity of the Trojan war. Strange little stories like “Medon was a bastard son of godlike Olïeus / and therefore brother of Aias, but had made his home in Phylakē / away from the land of his fathers, having killed a man, a relation / of Eriopis, his stepmother, the wife of Olïeus.” Something in that strikes me as beautiful; that someone with such a small role in the grand scheme of things still gets remembered, still gets his story printed and reprinted and read by students all across the world* (even if they only skim it).

These little stories persisting in memory seem especially important to me because this weekend is the Les Duke cross country meet here at Grinnell. Les Duke is always an important day for the team, but now more than ever because it’s also the retirement party for William and Evelyn Freeman, who have been coaching at Grinnell for forty years, leading the teams through three decades of nearly uninterrupted conference championships. Over two hundred alumni are coming, the local hotel has been booked solid for more than two months for this weekend. And all that history, all the stories that are going to be told and team lore unearthed in the next couple of days, has gotten me thinking about how memories get passed down. Because, when I read the descriptions of war and violence in The Iliad, I can’t help but use my ten years of cross country races as an example. It’s probably a little presumptuous of me to say so, after all, no one is in danger of dying when the gun goes off for a race. But there’s the same moment of terror and mad instinct, and the stressful minutes that follow it. And in all that stress and adrenaline, the excitement elevates details into stories. A muddy pit isn’t much of anything on its own, but a muddy pit a kilometer into an 8k, where the swamp claims any shoes not tied tightly enough? Where one kid got his right foot stuck in the mud, and his other foot tangled in some string marking the course, and went face down in the mud so I had to leap right over him to keep going? That’s an epic. Cross country lives on these epics, the ones you live through and the ones you just hear about, the people who win conference titles while battling anemia or binge Netflix the night before a meet and bomb it. 

Part of it is the focus on competition, which is also a key element of The Iliad. Once you’re in the top five, every place counts, and sacrificing all the strength in your body for that success raises the stakes, makes everything feel important, nearly sacred. The Iliad lays out an important concept in Greek culture pretty clearly: that everyone wants immortality, but since only the gods can have it, the best that humans can hope for is to earn it through honor in warfare. When Achilles and Hektor slaughter hordes of enemies, each name and small backstory that Homer provides is a sliver of honor that the heroes seize for themselves. That sort of honor comes through in cross country too. Maybe the narratives of races are what really persist through time, but the most important narratives in our team are always of the people who won. I’ve had a habit since high school of panting out esoteric song lyrics or bits of poetry to people as I pass them. I love to think that it confuses them for a second, but sticks with them, so years later one of them sit around wondering who that Edina or Grinnell guy who whispered “So long as hope maintains a thread of green” into his ear as he got passed. And, of course, it wouldn’t carry nearly as much power if I said it as he passed me.

But that idea that honor as a zero-sum game can be harmful too, especially in a sport as individual as cross country. The same way that Zeus lets the Trojans slaughter the Greeks, only so Achilles will gain yet more honor when he enters the scene and saves the day, there’s always a certain pride in one-upping someone on your own team. Maybe even more pride than passing an opposing runner, because they’re not faceless competitors, they’re real people with real personalities and stories you know, so beating them means something. I know I’ve fallen into that trap, and I’ve seen it corrode bonds between teammates. That’s the point of The Iliad, I think, in the end. It remembers the nameless people the heroes killed not to honor the winners but to give the losers their own humanity too.

That’s why Will and Ev Freeman are the best coaches I’ve ever had, and I’m sorry to see them go. They both want to win (and they’ve done so remarkably consistently), but they don’t exclude the rest of the team at the expense of the top five, and they don’t see those top five as simply their potential to score. They see everyone on the team, their narratives and their personality, and care about everyone too. And they make the team into a place where you want something more than to gain honor for yourself, but to gain honor for your team, your friends, your coaches, and sport as a whole. In doing all that, they’ve spun their own story, one that spans four decades and could fill far more lines than The Iliad’s 30,000 or so. We’ll no doubt sit down to tell that tale when the time for reminiscing begins this weekend. 
____________________

* I should point out that Medon might not have been a historical person. The Trojan war undoubtedly happened, but Homer’s work is essentially historical fiction, and he admits that he’s guessing the names and histories of the forgotten soldiers by saying his information comes from the Muses. The point still stands, though. Medon, lowly soldier or minor character, still gets remembered somehow.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Old Things


Every so often I’ll notice a motif forming in my life, some element that comes up so often that I can’t help but dwell on it. On a day that I’m coming down with a sore throat, for example, I might also be reading an essay about disease as a symbol for internal impurity in some Victorian novel, and then I’ll be scrolling through news stories on my phone and see something about flu shots. Most reasonable people would call these coincidences, or overactive minds seeing points connect when they really don’t. My mom tends to claim them as signs from some higher power. Personally, it makes me suspect that my life is a novel and the author is going a little overboard on cheeky symbolism about the fatal flaw that will inevitably lead to my doom.

Lately, I’ve been noticing signs and symbols of the past around me (a pretty broad motif, but all of them tend to be). It’s the first week of my last year at Grinnell, and doing so many comfortable yearly rituals of this place for the final time, I can’t help but slip back into memories. Meanwhile, half my classes are focusing on what us Westerners usually consider the beginnings of our culture: Greek and Roman antiquity. In my Humanities class I’m finally getting around to] classics like The Iliad and The Odyssey, while my class on gender theory in literature has been focusing on Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love. The Invention of Love follows an early twentieth century poet and Greek obsessive as he dies and travels down the River Styx with the Charon as his ferryman. The levels upon levels of looking back in this play get a little over-the-top quickly: it was published in 1997, but its setting and constant esoteric allusions make it clear that the writer is nostalgic for the New Classicists poets and scholars called the New Hellenists, who are in turn nostalgic for ancient Greece and Rome. That’s three levels of looking back already, four if you count the New Classicists yearning for Italy in its Greco-Roman Renaissance, and it goes further when you consider that Greek classics like The Iliad and The Odyssey are set in an even more ancient Greece, when they believed gods were more present in mortal affairs. 

Picture that: five lenses of nostalgia, each obscuring the last, and ending in a time that never really existed in the first place. It’s easy to get pessimistic when you realize that the scholars we consider our greatest minds concern themselves with the even greater minds of the past, as if our future is just a long staircase down from some glorious imagined past. And easier to get pessimistic when you realize how often we fall into the same trap, how I’ll probably spend most of my last year in college missing my first three, much of which I spent missing home and high school. 


That last paragraph is essentially the blog post I pitched to my girlfriend at lunch today, and she smartly called me out for being too gloomy on the whole, too simplistic and negative about humanity’s unique ability to learn from and love the past. After all, isn’t there a special sort of wonder in the way things stay the same over time? The way that some ancient texts survive, translated and corrupted but still with the same emotional core that speaks to us like it spoke to scholars a hundred generations ago? She was right, of course, and I was mostly just beating up on nostalgia because I wanted to sound smart and cynical and was getting tired of thinking about how much I’ll miss this place. Because the power of looking back has shaken me, many times. At the New York State Summer Writer’s Workshop I went to a used bookstore and bought a used postcard, dated 1879 and costing twenty five cents. I couldn’t believe that something so old had maintained, written in a language I could read (even if I couldn’t very exactly decipher the old-fashioned swooping cursive) and that it could be mine for only a quarter. Or at the island in the boundary waters my family visits in the summer, where there are brittle, leafless trees sticking up through the rocks on shore that were there before any European on this continent. Or when I learned, in Kindergarten, that the church my elementary school grew from was over one hundred years old. That’s not ancient by most standards, but to a Kindergartener a hundred years is no less than a million, and I looked up and imagined generations of ghosts floating through the arched ceiling. Maybe that’s the most remarkable of all: how we can take nostalgia for times we know and nostalgia for times we can only imagine and fuse the two until they feel like the exact same thing.