Thursday, April 22, 2010

Catching Up

by J J Cohen
I've never blogged so sparsely -- nor commented so lightly -- as I have over the past few months, even though some fine posts by Karl and Eileen have appeared at ITM. You'd think that now that I'm no longer department chair I'd have vacant stretches of time imploring to be filled with bloggy bons mots. Pas de tout. I can't deploy the usual academic excuses of publishing deadlines and onerous teaching: this semester has seen a trough in research productivity (I vaguely remember that I am working on a book about medieval stone, though I did get some work done on my Christian-Jewish neighboring project), and my teaching doesn't consist of new courses, just a very large one that I happen to love (don't tell my dean, but I would teach this class even if I were not paid to do so; it reminds me every day why I entered the profession). I've missed posting here, though, and thought I'd take the extra hour that I seem to possess before a day of meetings commences to jot down a few thoughts about what has been taking up my time, and what I'm looking forward to in the months ahead.

2010 has been a year of transitions for my family. From October until April we lived in a rental house a mile from the one we've owned since 1996. Though it started rather more sadly than we would have liked, the change in location and routine was fun while it lasted. How could it not be, when it included Snowmageddon? Our family home -- the only house our kids have really known -- is now seventy years old. Hastily built for the WW2 influx of government workers, the little brick colonial had become much the worse for the passing of time. We gutted its first floor, upgraded its innards, expanded a bit, and made the place ours. We discovered along the way how poorly constructed much of our dwelling had been, and I found myself fighting against easy metaphors of home and foundation.

Our dog Scooby died before we moved back. I keep reaching down to stroke her ears as I am typing, and seem unable to stop delivering to myself fresh reminders of her absence. Meanwhile my son Alex prepared for his bar mitzvah with a determination that the rest of us found utterly inspiring. He had his ceremony last Saturday, chanting a section of Leviticus on impurities (leprosy and menstruation, mostly). As part of the ceremony Alex was invited to read a text that means something to him personally; he chose a poem that he claims has haunted him "since childhood." Much to my surprise, he read the last two stanzas of Dover Beach, with its bleak vision of a world limned in violence and barely salvageable through love ("And we are here as on a darkling plain..."). I've never been so proud, nor so happy, as I was on Saturday -- not for the poem, but because Alex had worked so hard, and because the day meant so much to him, and because 140 of our friends from every part of our lives shared it with us.

The day was perfect, stretching past midnight before the celebrating concluded. In ways I can't well explain the events of that weekend seemed intimately tied to those that happened in York at the conference a few weeks earlier, and to some comments I left this morning on Stephanie Trigg's blog. Among my favorite memories of the day, though, was watching six year old Katherine alone on the dance floor. Most of the guests had departed, the DJ was winding the music down, and there she was by herself, lost in a private dance, happy I think to find a moment of solitude and motion.

Renovating our house was part of my family's commitment to staying in DC after seriously contemplating leaving last year. Renovating my GW life has occurred in a much quieter way, but for similar reasons of commitment: because I do have some more time than I used to, I've been thinking quite a bit about how to slow myself down, to stop being the blurry person always rushing from one place to another. As chair I think I did a pretty good job of being present for my colleagues, but maybe not so well for my students. That has certainly changed this semester, which I'd like to believe has seen a deepening of my relationships with graduates and undergraduates alike. I'm guessing that there's a correlation between enjoying my teaching so much this spring and endeavoring to know my students outside the classroom.

Along with this deepening of ties has come a new commitment to treasuring occasional solitude. When I was chair I kept my office door open all day, unless some Top Secret meeting was unfolding. My office looked out upon a suite that is the center of departmental life, so faculty and students come and go all day. I wanted the space to be one in which conversations were always unfolding. I like to be part of a gregarious community. Now don't get me wrong: despite my threats to dwell in a hermit's hut once I was done being chair, I haven't done so. I'm still directing GW MEMSI, I'm still orchestrating events and participating in faculty governance, my colleagues are my friends and I am happy to hang out with them. But as busy as the past few months have been with moving house and giving the York plenary and Alex's bar mitzvah and and and ... well despite all these things I've rediscovered something that I cherish, something that brought me into the field in the first place. As much as I delight in standing in front of a classroom and creating lively dialogues, as much as I like putting together lecture series and seminars and the conviviality they engender, as much as I enjoy going out to lunch and coffee and drinks with friends, I also very much like having some moments when I can simply lose myself in reading or in writing without worrying about all the things I need to do so that colleagues get their merit raises. I take pleasure in the extra minutes I had this morning that enabled me to compose this post; I love the half hour that I had yesterday when I closed my office door and lost myself in Vibrant Matter, for no other reason than the book thrills me as I read it.

I understand now, at age 45, what my daughter Katherine knows well at six: parties are wonderful, being with those we love and those we are starting to love is precious ... but so are the dances that we do in solitude, performances offered to no audience, the lonely time of closed doors in which worlds open up.


Steve Muhlberger said...

I hardly know you in person but I have worried a bit about your frenetic comet's trail. This post is a good sign.


Captcha "supemath" = an illiterate math genius.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I hope so, Steve.

Here's another thing that I have learned at midlife. It's not that one comes to an epiphany and changes one's life so much so that one learns something, forgets it, learns it again ... and I hope with each relearning gets better at practicing. EG, I've written about the power of solitude before.

Tess Malone said...

Great post. I've definitely missed your presence on this blog and in the department. Of course, I know you're still teaching and we occasionally run into each other in the hallways (like today). However you're not as ever present as when you were chair. Don't get me wrong, chair is an exhausting position so I'm glad you finally have the chance to breathe. Yet now that I no longer see you on a weekly basis like I did for a year (starting with Myths of Britain and then our weekly meetings last fall), I find I miss you. Who else do I have to geek out about Michael Chabon and your "toast-it" notes with? Oh well, even though I plan to go abroad next year, expect to see/hear from me in full force come 2011/12!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks Tess! I am around more than I appear ... it's just that few people make the trek from the sunshine and light of the 7th floor to the Stygian depths of floor 6.

Eileen Joy said...

Toast-it notes? I love it.