Sunday, May 20, 2012

Worlds, Green and Otherwise

by J J Cohen

[Though it starts off with a meditation on the professional, this post quickly becomes personal -- probably too personal for some readers. If you come to ITM mainly for news of happenings in the humanities and prefer disembodied or impersonal ruminations, skip this one]

The Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo can seem a world set apart: a break from the routines of grading and writing that structure the academic calendar, from the schedule of activities that quietly regulate personal time. Every Green World, segregated as it may seem, has its clouds, muck, darkness. Even if this darker ecology seems to intrude from elsewhere, its heaviness is already part of its fabric. But returning to the everyday after such a space set apart can be an adjustment, especially because the congress was so invigorating (evidence here, here, here, here, here; and look for a BIG POST tomorrow on Activism).

On the one hand I've been busy planning what's next for the MEMSI "Ecologies" panel (more soon), mapping out the session the Institute will sponsor next year (quite future oriented), and also editing the essays that have arrived for Prismatic Ecologies (some great ones, some that need substantial work). My family has also been dealing with ongoing academic and social troubles for our fifteen year old: no one told us that ninth grade would be such a trial by fire. Every problem seemingly solved leads to a new one surging elsewhere to the surface. It's a Bad Rhizome. Don't get me wrong: we are not dealing with the severe troubles that too many parents cope with at this age. Fifteen, for those of you who may have forgotten, is a time when some adolescents lose themselves in substance abuse, rebellion to the point of crime, and other difficulties that can haunt for the entirety of their lives. That is not at all Alex. He is having an impossible time giving his academic responsibilities the sustained focus they require; balancing a desire to fit in with a confidence to be his own person; and learning to think longterm (weeks instead of hours or minutes). In other words, he is pretty much a normal teen. But here is the hard thing: neither of his parents were normal teens. My life went into crisis when I received a C in Latin in ninth grade, and I never failed to turn in an assignment again. Like my spouse, I was that annoying person who had the paper finished two days early so that it could be revised. Alex on the other hand forgets about a test -- despite having it in his planner and the assignments available online -- until 9 PM the night before. His perpetual habit is to think that everything will be OK nonetheless, and then to be surprised when it is not. And then the disappointment he feels in himself and for letting his parents down ... well let's just say that there has been plenty of shared pain. As difficult as it is to realize that your children are not and will never be you, and that these differences may well in some form become their strengths (what a simple thing, but one many parents don't seem to comprehend) -- well, that realization takes daily practice. [EDIT: I also want to add that going on to win translation prizes in Latin because you've applied yourself with so much energy to mastering the subject in no way improves your life. Despite such achievements, or maybe even because of them, I was miserable throughout my adolescence -- depressed, actually, to the point of contemplating harming myself. I felt like an alien interloper in my schools, my family and, really, this world. I didn't emerge from this darkness until I moved to DC after graduate school and finally realized that for an academic feeling deeply weird and out of place can be a strength, as well as the basis for lasting and sustaining friendships. I NEVER want my children to go through that pain, and am certainly not requiring that Alex or Katherine "succeed" in the same way I did. I know how much that success can cost.]

All in all it's been a frustrating year. While I feel like we are in some ways at the same place we were when things started to spiral downwards in October, I also know that despite making all these mistakes Alex is maturing as he moves through them. Growing up hurts. Self awareness comes with pain. I wish it didn't work that way. I sometimes wish as a parent I could protect my children from having to experience how rough it can be to discover consequences ... but of course it is only through these feelings that they decide who they want to be. And don't get me wrong: Alex might be almost as tall as me, and almost stronger than me, but a part of him remains the sweet, sweet boy he has always been. I never lose sight of what a good heart he has, and I know in the end that's what will get him through. It's funny, that is the ONLY part of him his doting sister Katherine beholds, and so I learn much from her.

So yesterday morning I was not in the best mood: too much to do, too many things going wrong, too many disappointments, overworked and overwhelmed, spouse out of town so nonstop activities to coordinate and ...

Then yesterday became a day set apart. We'd been invited by a friend to come to his family farm not far from the Chesapeake Bay for an annual gathering. Everyone brings food, beer, families. The day unwinds slowly, with eating and drinking and canoeing and hikes and a go kart. We wandered the fields, sat under trees and chatted, waded in the river, admired the sun from the small dock. Late in the day Ben gave us a tour of the farm, which has been in his family since chartered to them in the mid 1600s. He showed us a stable from 1910, filled with the remains of old stage coaches and other detritus of lost ages. Ben's dad talked to us about growing soybeans, and the dependence of the area upon the poultry business. The family graveyard contains the stones of those who came to Maryland from London for mysterious reasons, likely political. Not far from the manicured family plot is an uneven expanse of brambles that may be the slave cemetery. For the farm was of course worked by enslaved people until the Civil War. The Eastern Shore of Maryland was known as an especially inhospitable place, where slaves were sent to be broken. The remains of slave quarters are still present on the farm. A small house in which one or two enslaved families dwelled stood in good condition until it toppled during a storm. Ben's family reconstructed the building. During the archeological dig that preceded carved figures were discovered that connect to African religious rites. Ben told us that rebuilding the slaves' dwelling was not an easy decision for his family, and that they still argue about what to do with this disturbing inheritance: forget about it, declaring that episode over? Memorialize it by learning as much as possible and talking about it, retelling what history can be brought forward? It's a big question, and not wholly different from ones that surround Holocaust commemoration. I believe that secrets serve no one well, not the living and not the dead.

So we had our perfect day at the farm, my family mixing with other families (and here it is worth noting, families of many racial origins), all of us aware how fragile these moments of community are, how they are built on troubled histories but not predetermined by this past. History hurts, but that isn't a compulsion to silence: by speaking about the injustice and wrongs and things that should not have been we move, tentatively, towards something better. Looking around, seeing that Alex and Katherine took seriously this knowledge, took seriously knowing that the ground beneath them had been worked once and traversed once by those who did not wish to be there made me think: there is nothing to be gained by willed ignorance.

We stayed at the farm until long after sunset. Our friend Lowell had come with us: he brought a tent and was camping out, and we envied him the quiet beauty of that long night. I wish we could have stayed. As we walked from the river across the fields to the car, fireflies glimmered. It was almost too much, as if a special effect had just been cued. Katherine told me she was proud of herself for having had the courage to ask some adults she did not know to take her on the river in the canoe. Alex raved about how Ben had trusted him to drive the Go Kart by himself, and how his excellent driving skills demonstrated that he was ready for a Learner's Permit. Alex has a tendency to draw into himself (I've written on this blog about he was hazed at school, so I understand why: when you have been attacked in a space which should be safe, you withdraw). Ben's act of kindness in offering the Go Kart was a reminder to Alex that the world can also be unexpectedly kind, and that this kindness should be savored.

There are no Green Worlds. Our lives don't endure long enough. They are limned by tragedy. No place set apart exists. A family cannot protect. The ground of a tranquil farm was worked by the kidnapped and enslaved. We have good reasons to be anxious, because we are not always wished well by others. We are judged, we are disciplined, we are reminded that whatever happiness we possess is built on others' misery. We have many reasons to despair. And yet we have moments when communities to which we did not expect to belong coalesce. Acts of unlooked for kindness arrive, and change what is possible. The future can hurt as it comes into being, especially when that future refuses to forget the difficult past.

Maybe it is the respite offered by a day of good food, cheer, a river, a sunset in which yellow yielded to pink, fireflies so perfect in their timing that if this were a novel I'd throw the book to the floor. Maybe it is the fact that despite all my optimism I know that I carry with me too much worry, and I felt that anxiety drain for a while yesterday. But the day was perfect: not because it was uncomplicated, not because it was set apart, but because it simply was.


John Walter said...

Thank you. A wonderful post giving me much to think about as I'm coming up to my first year of family life. How much personal is too much is always a difficult question, one I'm increasingly struggling with myself. I often look to you as a model.

Unknown said...

you limn some of my own anxieties in so many areas, obscure reasons for staying away from the Academy for so long when all I have ever wanted with all my heart is gladly lerne and gladly teche...and the anxieties of how or whether and when the personal and the professional interact...not least the anxieties of a parent, the agony of watching one's child go through agonies that recall one's own...and then, write large, to have such a beautiful day with friends in this alloyed, tarnished world (that last esp. writ large when one is with one's children and shares this corroded, strangely beautiful and violent world as their only real inheritance)...much to say. I regard you as an especially pivotal person to speak, because you are a leader in your field and you use your power only for good.

(Watch out for the kryptonite)

Eileen Joy said...

A beautiful post and very timely as I had a rather horrendous morning. It will be maudlin to say so, but I feel you gathered together here so many bodies -- real bodies, dead and alive, parent bodies and child bodies, but also the multiple selves we each comprise, our child selves, our adult selves, virtual hoped-for but often not realizable selves, bodies that don't necessarily *want* to be held or pressed together -- and in doing so, you performed a sort of reparation, and I think we need more of that. It's called honesty.

Eileen Joy said...

And also, since I've been thinking a lot lately about writing as action, that this post represents writing as a sort of binding, with "binding" meaning everything from "being bound together" [however uncomfortably] to "the ties that bind," happily and unhappily [family] to constraints that limit our vision sometimes to being "stuck" to "being bound" = adventure/going somewhere.

Caren Calamita said...

You've a lot of wisdom and self awareness that a lot of parents don't. Alex (and KEC) are lucky to have you for a Dad. You get that that he's not you; it takes many years, sometimes never, for parents to realize that, often to the detriment of both parties. The worry for our offspring will never go away, but it does get easier (so I've been told).

I loved this post. Often times you (and your co-writers) write about a topic that is still very new to me, and I feel dumb (due to my own intellectual insecurities). Your ability to weave it all together is stunningly beautiful.

Caren Calamita said...

The "Unknown" commenter was me.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

We have many reasons to despair. And yet we have moments when communities to which we did not expect to belong coalesce. Acts of unlooked for kindness arrive, and change what is possible. The future can hurt as it comes into being, especially when that future refuses to forget the difficult past.

I think you've pointed out something I always struggle to articulate, both in this short quotation and through the post itself. Living with the past is also living with one's own past AND the past of others, recognizing how intertwined they are -- not forgetting is also caring, and caring is usually, for better or worse reasons, painful.