Not Easier But Softer: A Literacy Autobiography
15 March 2015
I Where I Saw Myself Then
II Special Attention
III Hammock Reading
IV Motorcycle Poetry– An Introduction to Yeats
V Sitting on the Steps
All indications are that one day our universe will collapse in on itself.
At one point some 14 million years ago, all matter is thought to have occupied a single, infinitely dense particle—and only after a cataclysmic event known as the big bang did the universe begin its rapid expansion outward toward resembling the structures of the world as we see it today.
Now, events such as the big bang hold meaning for living creatures, which can be said of nothing else to ever have existed within this reality. Farmers, accountants, human rights lawyers, Syrian militants, children, the homeless; all invent and assign significance. Your mother, your father, your walk to work, your travels, failures, triumphs, moments of clarity, realizations, elations, inspirations, condemnations, confusions, creations, solutions— a very finite number of beings ever get a chance at consciousness, and you are one of those few. There are choices to make but there is no choice in the fact that you’re got to react, that you’re reacting right now, that each thought that races through your mind is a brushstroke on your masterwork, which is whatever you’re able to make of yourself.
I’m not a physicist. I’m not a physics major. I can’t even claim to be an avid reader of science fiction—the best I can say is that I’ll on occasion surf the /physics/ subreddit page in my moccasin slippers as I sip my morning coffee, watching the squirrels burrow their noses in.
This is a story of learning to forgo an attempt at understanding in favor of immersion in understanding, of saying there is no maybe, there is only is. Cultural critic Mike Rose, in his book Lives on the Boundary, would call my story one of “entering the conversation” (61). This is a plea for ultimate understanding, and it begins and ends in the best of places, the mind doing what the mind does, thinking.
What is the value of this world you cling to? That is the story I am going to tell.
It is only through knowledge that meaning can be actualized, when we are able to say that thing is good—I will give my living to see it live. The great writer Jamie MacKinnon once said, “writers move the world through writing, but they too move, even as they write.” It may seem that all things must have conclusions but this does not apply to an education. A story of literacy is a story of identity. That is the story I will tell.
Where I Saw Myself Then
In June of 2011 I walked the stage at Finger Lakes Community College, shaking the hand of Mr. Lafave, my high school’s assistant principal, firmly believing my time at Canandaigua Academy had come to solid and suitable end, a firm break with who I had been then and who I was to become, no leftover feelings from that rosy tenure and nothing but green pastures ahead.
That last year of high school was an eventful one. My friends and I were all scheming about how we’d be spending the coming years of our lives: some going away to college, some joining the military, many staying home to attend community college. None of us knew what we really wanted, just that wanted something new and we wanted to be adults.
I briefly dated a girl that year. She was kind, sweet, respectful, knowledgeable, domestic, relaxed, unassuming, honest, nurturing, emotionally healthy: everything I didn’t want. What I wanted was to live.
This girl was a writer; she would go on attend a private liberal arts college I could only dream of, the vines on its walls soaring past my widened eyes as we drove along the highway back toward Canandaigua after her official visit. Her name was Meg; she wrote fan fiction, she wrote characters, she wrote plots and storylines; I did not identify as a writer then, just as one deeply interested in emotions and in human truth and tendencies. She saw something in me that I had yet to see in myself. She’d matured faster than I had, at least in an intellectual sense. I dreamed of someday going to frat parties in college, she of coffee dates with her book club. She’d ask about my toe-deep intellectual pursuits of those days and I’d share nothing. I was a reader, but it was solely a personal activity for me, not yet a serious pursuit. Cultural critic Neil Postman argues in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death that in the Internet age, discourse “increasingly takes the form of entertainment.” In this sense, reading was just that for me: entertainment, like a TV show that was sometimes rational and wise as well. It was like watching a movie about magic or about dragons—things I’d always loved. It was like watching a sentimental music video for your favorite band—it was all about emotion.
My relationship with Meg was never an artistic community for me; I stopped talking to her two weeks before Senior Ball and never gave it a second thought, never felt any sense of regret about leaving her other than a vague sense of having been unintentionally hurtful that I got over in about twenty minutes.
Perhaps her most valuable contribution to me (outside of her mom helping me finish college applications, something I’d no idea how to do and my parents showed no interest in) was introducing me to one of the school’s English teachers, Mr. Mason. A tall, goateed man, slightly fat and pale with little muscle but a wit sharper than an axe, the Creative Writing class I took with him referred to him as Mr. Mason for the first class period and only as “Mason” after.
Mason took a special interest in me—he viewed me as a conflicted soul whose life could go in any number of directions, as a blank slate, someone who could end up in any number of places. He was the sort of teacher who wandered the halls each day, searching for something to happen, asking for conversation. He loved shaking your hand—his were pale, naturally dry-skinned and thick, and his mocha-colored hair was always neatly gelled to the extent of seeing comb lines, all of which I’d noticed he kept in a mug with his pens and pencils.
He was somewhat effeminate, and you always got a vague sense that a deep loneliness resided in him; he was a man whose life revolved about his golden retriever, Burt, who died the year after graduation, me finding out on a Facebook post where Mason got more than four-hundred likes. The two of them were celebrities at Canandaigua Academy. Meg confided certain things about Mason’s inner-life that I felt almost uncomfortable knowing, especially because I knew those secrets were shared with her in confidence. I wanted to be an open-minded person and in rural Canandaigua there was little room for this—we were almost all white, straight ex-protestants destined for state schools and community colleges if we escaped the ravaging toll of teenage pregnancy and meth addiction.
One morning as I sat in the library playing chess with friends Mason approached me carrying a package, which he set down on the table in front of me. On top was a small book, face-down. On bottom was a box wrapped in a Barnes and Noble bag.
“Now you’ll be able to beat the whole school,” he said, and walked away toward the hallway, where he greeted another teacher and said hello to the librarian.
The book was a guide to advanced chess strategy; inside the box was a crystalline chess set, the black and clear pieces of glass shining in the naturally-lit windowed room, all my friends speechless at the gesture, jealous for his clear display of favoritism, of affection in the friendliest of senses.
They were right, too—Mason was different with me— always willing to give the extra attention I needed even though I was rarely willing to ask for it. He was different when he talked to me individually rather than when he addressed the entire class. I think he saw how deeply I tried to be masculine around Meg, to impress her and to be sure she was the more vulnerable one in the relationship, and I think this insight into my recurring adolescent choices was something he identified with, though I never got the chance to ask him. Graduation was an awful time for me. I think Mason saw I was torn between the many people I wanted to be, all at the same time, and he may have worried about who I’d end up being. We’re still Facebook friends to this day and catch up every once in a while—he likes to keep tabs on whatever I’m working on.
Creative Writing was third period for me—the first two periods were Mythology and then a study hall where my friends and I would gather in the library and play chess. I found the class personally transformative—Mason cracked jokes about pop culture events and encouraged the writing of anything and everything “weird” in class. No assignment was really graded: Mason either liked it for its style or its wit, or he didn’t, and he always provided insight into how to improve something so it would inevitably mature its way to an A. He wanted creativity, spontaneity, noise. Each assignment was a journey—it was clear to both Mason and I that my writing was perhaps a step more mature than that of others, a tad bit more thoughtful, though completely unpolished. By my freshman year of college, I’d be laughing at anything I’d written the year previously. But it means something to me, even now.
The culminating project for the class was a short story featuring ourselves as a character. The hook, however, was that the story had to take place five years in the future. It was 2011 at the time, so I was picturing my life as it might be in 2015. I’d no idea what my life would look like; I understood the openness of middle-class American life, and I ran with it, wanted to have fun with it.
It never occurred to me to take the assignment literally. I saw the assignment as a character study, an act of self-reflection, and I envisioned my soul dwelling in all sorts of places, this story being an elaboration of one. My tale placed me in Montana, wandering the hills (only in summertime) with a herd of sheep, acting as a shepherd. The story was filled with a boatload of bad Beatles references, a strong inspiration for me at the time; it contained no plot, no characters other than myself, no story outside of description, just a jumble of hippie-influenced watered-down vaguely-applicable philosophy, Beatles references and descriptions of beautiful summer waterfalls and valley streams functioning as a reflection of identity. I was immensely proud and guarded the story as the act of my life; it was the first time I’d felt as if I’d produced something of value, a feeling I treasure and truly feel infrequently.
The final assignment for Mason’s class was to edit a piece we’d written that semester; my second draft of the shepherd piece was even better than the first. When I went off to college the next year, I kept the pages, marked with a bright circled A, in the back of my car’s trunk to look at when I felt forgotten and off centered, for those strings of days where absolutely nothing held meaning, there was an alternate life, one where I was long-haired, un-shoed, free as the sheep I wandered with, unrestrained by any limits, even those that are self-imposed: aren’t all limits self-imposed?
What Mason did for me was introduce me to a writing community, a community of ideas, though it was a community of two, just he and I, the rest of our class chatting mindlessly in the background. I wasn’t yet at the point of thinking of myself as writer—that would come later—but I was on my way there.
Mason was tremendously involved in the school, and he was there on stage at graduation to shake my hand after I got my diploma, dressed in my sisters’ boyfriend’s khakis and his maroon button-down shirt because I had none of my own, my cherry cap and gown elegantly lofted over my clothes, and what did he say to me, with my whole family snapping pictures of me, eagerly awaiting my arrival off-stage to hug the new high-school graduate?
“Burt chased a pigeon this morning—congrats, Jake!”
It’s unlikely that many graduate students studying literature begin their reading careers dyslexic and angsty at seven years old, still working on mastering print while the rest of their third grade class is hard at work with cursive, but that was how I began mine.
Now, don’t get the impression I wasn’t smart as a child; though I did secretly harbor the fear that I was mentally retarded and no one was telling me (I never told anyone this), I trusted my parents enough to believe they would tell me if this was the case (which was a logical error on my part; they’d never dream of telling a child such a thing). I was simply a hard introvert terrified to talk even to his own friends, caught up in visions of Pokémon and blue whales, more likely to be found reading a Zoo book than playing a board game with others. But to begin with, I hated reading because it didn’t come naturally to me. I was deemed by my teachers to require “special attention,” so three times a week I’d go with two or three others in my class to a special Reading Room where we’d go over basic sounds and learn what we’d been expected to have learned a two or three years previously; how to connect speech sounds to symbols from the ground up, starting with A and ending with Š.
I grew to spend much of my time in Magic Treehouses, or reading Harry Potter with my mom before bed, or reading Zoo books with my dad, or reading the free PBS magazines that would come in the mail; sometimes special attention is what a child needs.
As I’ve seen more of the world it’s gradually dawned on me that as an adolescent I was slow to mature not only in the ways I carried myself but also intellectually, in the ways I thought about thinking and thinking about learning. I was never sophisticated in any sense growing up; that’s not where I came from. All sophistication had to be observed, imitated and finally perfected through trial and error, boom and bust cycles that evened out over time.
By the summer before 11th grade, my love of stories had long been engraved into my sense of self; I thought of myself as a reader. After being separated from my peers for what my middle-school teachers have to have thought of as natural talent (there was little genuine enthusiasm emanating from me in school) I was separated into English 9 Honors, an advanced course track that led me to take my 11th grade New York State Regents exam a year early in 10th grade, eventually leading to a choice I had to make: to take A.P. Literature or A.P. Language.
My teachers encouraged me to take both, as I had showcased a natural interest and had talent, though there was little to really get enthused with. The typical track at my high school was to take Language in your junior year, and then Literature in your senior. I reversed this, however, and chose to take the lit course, which I would in time grow to love. It was a gradual love, however.
Before school started in September we had three assignments to complete for the summer since the A.P. Exam was in May, long before the mid-June end of the school year, meaning we’d have less than adequate time to prepare properly. The first task of our assignment, to read parts of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and compile a “dictionary of mythology” was difficult for me and I felt no real connection to the text or its characters; I was still caught in a web of daydreaming about the Harry Potter and the Eragon universes. Our second task was to read Sophocles’ Oedipus. I was lost from the beginning and would struggle through four or five pages every couple of days and then put it down to sit anxiously on my bedroom floor as I enjoyed a summer of adolescent joy. I had no real sense of a work ethic at the time; there was never any need to work, never any sense of urgency or consequence for not taking responsibility for myself. I was anxious every day, however, about not being an adult, about being unable to read Oedipus and understand his struggle. Rose would call this period of my life “playing with your food” (27). The pressure I’d placed on myself was ruining me already– I was afraid of falling so I wouldn’t let myself stand up.
With about three weeks before school was to start, I finally finished Oedipus, ready to grab forks from my kitchen drawer and slam my eyes into them. I’d understood nothing, I couldn’t tell you even the plot of the story, which I re-read just a few years later, filling the book with hundreds of blue-inked annotations. In a fit of anxious frenzy I went into my bedroom and picked up the third task for my summer assignment: John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany. I haven’t re-read the book since, odd for me as I generally tend to re-read books I’m engaged in so as to digest them fully and objectively, but I can’t seem to let go of the experience of reading Owen Meany’s tale for the first time. Those few weeks were when I dipped my toes into the pools of adulthood, and by the time I walked into A.P. Literature class with Mrs. Albright there to greet me as “Jakey!”, the water was ankle deep, and I was still standing. I’d had Mrs. Albright for 9th grade English two years previously; she’d first grown to admire me over our shared admiration for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. She believed in the old idea that some students are best engaged in pursuing their own yearnings; she let me stand; she pushed me to stand taller.
I read Owen Meany at my dad’s house (my mom still lived there at the time, but for whatever reason essentially zero memories remain of her at that house in my mind). I read the entire 400-page book in a week and a half, most of it spent in the sun, laying on a hammock alone while everyone was at work or at summer camp. I was tanned, sunburned and happy, sipping glasses of ice water as Clyde, my best friend and confident, barked at neighbors that would be mowing their lawn or riding four-wheelers across the street, or sat wagging his tail trying to get me to play, or moseyed on over to rest his nose on my knee. I loved reading outside but hated seeing the neighbors— I never wanted them to see me reading. I wanted it to be a secret thing I did, something others might have a vague awareness of but we never formally acknowledged, a subtle wink between friends. I knew even at the time that my interests were bound further in the sphere of the world than fixing cars or driving trucks; but at fourteen you never realize it’s okay to be different than what your family exposes you to because in upstate New York the only different you see is on TV, and those worlds are so foreign and exotic you almost don’t believe they exist anywhere but afternoon cartoons. I’d only been to the closest real city, Rochester, maybe once in my life on a required school field trip. I smelled like hay. But reading Owen Meany, and loving the New England and Canadian college universe contained within those chapters, demonstrated how viewing the world as a mature adult allows for the freedom to choose your own lifestyle, and that was how I began to think I could choose as well.
Some writers are born into the occupation—one of my favorites of all time, Annie Lamott, who wrote the great reflection on the creative process Bird By Bird, once remarked how her “father rose at 5:30, went to his study, wrote for a couple of hours, made us all breakfast, read the paper with my mother, and then went back to work for the rest of the morning” (13). This was not the background I was coming from: I grew up on different terms.
My parents were in the middle of their divorce, I was meeting with counselors and going to court every couple of weeks. The main character in my book left his home world for Vietnam, for college, for Canada.
It was a fictional world I didn’t mind living in.
Motorcycle Poetry—An Introduction to Yeats
By the second semester of my Freshman year at SUNY Cortland, I was done with the first great romantic infatuation of my life (well, sort of), had found the friends I’d spend the rest of my college years with, and had a vague idea that there was something I found deeply meaningful about storytelling, philosophy and the study of living well.
I walked into my Introduction to Poetry class, which I had every Tuesday and Thursday, to a mixed-sort of classroom: football players, frat guys, blonde sorority speech and education majors seeking a required liberal-arts credit, the halfway-hipster types who clearly would be making the extent of their vast literary knowledge known to everyone soon enough.
I sat in the back with Cath, a lifetime Long Islander who would become a high school English teacher and a lifelong friend, and we waited for the professor to show up. I was nervous as I always was in the beginning of classes, anxious that the teacher would write me off immediately as a tall kid with no brains at all, which was exactly what I didn’t want to be, and in my over thinking I nearly missed the professor himself, who was sitting at a regular desk just a few rows ahead of me, mumbling to himself under his breath, scribbling away in a notebook.
“Phones away,” he said as he sat up in a thundering, booming voice. He was roughly seventy, with an unshaven, long grey beard, bright blue eyes that looked straight at you, and he didn’t stand up straight.
“This is English 213, Poetry,” he said. I looked at my schedule—he’d gotten the class number wrong; poetry was clearly labeled ENG 210.
“You will need the book today—anyone who doesn’t will need to look on with someone else. Turn to page 513 please, we’ll be reading a favorite poet of mine today, an Irishman from the turn of the century who many consider the greatest…” and on he went, with no introduction, not even telling us his name, not handing out a syllabus and plans or handouts of any sort; just jumping right into the poetry, and I loved it.
“Anyone want to read the poem aloud?” It was Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innesfree. “No one? How about you there?”
He’d pointed at Cath. She blushed.
“No? How about you then, the young man next to you,” he said, pointing at me. All I could think of was my stammer, how terrified I was of messing up. I think Cath knew this, she was an incredibly sincere and insightful person, but she let me read anyways. Besides, I’d read the poem silently in my head a moment earlier and fallen in love with it immediately—this poetic euphoria provided the necessary elation to speak with power and with passion.
“The Lake Isle of Innesfree,” I said, my voice matching the thunderous impact of Bernie’s own. “I will arise and go now, and go to Innesfree. And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made…” The poem was short and sweet, and the ending was impactful on its own, regardless of how I read it. “While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
I was pleased with myself—I had read it excellently, with power and gusto, with charisma and charm, and Bernie seemed to notice.
“Well read,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Jake,” I answered. “Richter.”
“Great voice—true flare. Now, class, let me draw your attention to how Josh read the poem, paying particular attention to how he read Yeats’ intentional use of commas to add or subtract or destroy rhythm…” Bernie respected me, I’d have him for two more classes within my first two undergrad years, but he never seemed to get anyone’s name right, even those of his most respected students. He loved Pound, Williams and Eliot; and like them, he thought primarily in images, in faces apparating in a dark metro, a poem he taught me how to love. He turned me on to many of my favorite writers today, including the aforementioned modernists but also Yeats, Dylan Thomas and the Romantics. I, in turn, showed him an alternative band’s lyrics I’d been listening to lately, those of a song called Jesus Christ written and performed by Brand New. He was open to anything and took the printed page of lyrics home with him, though he criticized the songwriter’s questionable religious imagery.
Bernie rambled, lectured every class, without set destination or point. He’d stand for about two minutes at the beginning of class without taking attendance and then sit down in his chair, have someone read a poem or two, and then he’d talk for an hour. Many of the students hated the class—Cassie and I couldn’t get enough. Bernie told us stories of his personal life, almost too much information, though never many words. We once read Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet:
“My partner left after five years,” Bernie told us. “I was depressed after she went away. Then I drove to a mountain and went skiing for three days and I felt better. What a waste. It didn’t even make for good poetry.” He was that kind of writer.
Bernie wasn’t the only teacher I had who’d share a bit too much, however—one of my other teachers, a respected intellectual, discussed and even complained about his sex life in the midst of a class session, without any of the romantic beauty of Bernie’s stories…
Bernie grew up in the heat of the Beat movement. He spoke of seeing Allen Ginsberg perform Howl at Neubig, our school’s main dining hall, something I considered legendary; he even pointed me in the direction of a professor whom I approached the next semester who was able to share a quick story of hanging out with Ginsberg in a New York hotel for a few days; she then politely asked to be excused, left her office for a minute or two while I admired her books and her story, and when she returned she asked me to come back another time to discuss a story I was working on, which I’d feigned needing advice with in order to talk to her.
I had no particular interest in Ginsberg—I was more interested in Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson among my multi-faceted interest in the Beats—but my attention was seized by the genuine feeling that I was dipping my toes into social circles among people who actually accomplished, believed, felt—true writers, true thinkers, unafraid of saying and doing unconventional things and breaking from the norm—that was who I wanted to be, and I was finally getting there. But then I went back to my friends who were playing wii in their sweatpants, making plans to drink and order calzones, and felt like what I’d had a moment ago was lost, but that was okay, I had those meager moments with me.
Bernie showed us the poetics of Bob Dylan’s music, specifically his early-sixties The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the true Dylan, the Dylan before anyone cared about image, before revolution became a product. We’d read Subterranean Homesick Blues, talk about drugs or whatever the song was getting at, and Bernie would speak of his years spent on his motorcycle writing poetry on napkins in diners. He really was such a cliché, his life that of a traveling bard roaming the land in search of kicks, beauty, spontaneity, surprise, the unusual and unique, the sublime, the overlooked and ordinary underdog moments in the world and I loved him for it, I still love it about him because he spoke from the soul, and although I knew he was crazy and that he was misunderstanding the poetry we’d read sometimes (Cath took offense to just about everything he said about Sylvia Plath, her favorite, whom Bernie respected but not in a way that lended itself well to a feminist lens) my attention had been captured and it would never really fade.
The final paper I wrote for Bernie’s class was on William Blake, comparing a few of his poems, among them my favorite poem at the time, To See the World In A Grain of Sand, in a context of an emerging belief of my own pantheism, seeing God and the truth and meaning of the world in the breathing life of nature itself. I was a little too lost in my own head after those class sessions… weirdness was a distinct phase I went through, at least from a philosophic maturation process. Rose, ever insightful into the process of the many educations we receive in our lives, notes how “you’ll need people to guide you into conversations that seem foreign and threatening.” This was Bernie for me—I wasn’t afraid to cherish unusual ideas either.
But those were the days! I drank Four-Lokos each weekend, dreamed of the girls across the hall, and read poetry and American Literature in a casual, childish dream of becoming a poet, even getting a short poem accepted by a publication on campus that I would become Vice-President of a year later, and then losing all sense that my campus had any prestige whatsoever… The world was small, the feelings true, honest, black and blue… who knew which, and who was who? Up and down, which was which? In the end, it’s only round and round and round…
My literacy had grown to the equivalence of a Pink Floyd song.
Sitting on the Steps
My junior year of undergrad came and went in a flurry of motion; it was a year of transition, a year of reading and a year of anxiety, of constant additions and revisions of the to-do lists I made for myself in an effort to get everything accomplished on time in a way that was acceptable to others and the empty filler that is so much of the college experience. No longer was I an underclassman free to do as I please, my unoccupied time entirely my own—responsibilities tugged at every breath I took, my life a crestfallen Prometheus, bound to the established order, a soul yearning to give.
I got a job as a Resident Assistant, became vice-president of my school’s writing club; I took five classes each semester, worked two undergraduate majors, wrote for my school’s newspaper, published stories and poetry in every campus publication, served as vice-president of my school’s English honor society and woke up each morning with tremendous expectations to fill each day with accomplishment, to add another bullet to the list, another line to the resume, to check off another box, to write just one more word, to justify existence because without expectation there could be no satisfaction, so I thought then.
I’d been to New York City just once in my life, a two-day trip with my dad and sisters that no one particularly enjoyed. The city wasn’t our place, it wasn’t where any of us belonged, it wasn’t where the things that mattered to us happened. It was a place of exotic food and noise and pollution, a tourist destination, and I don’t think anyone in my family ever thought of the Big Apple as a place of habitation where people lived, worked and died, but rather of a land of lights, continual motion and glamor that we’d see on television but never in our actual reality, never breasting in front of us. It was a lifestyle foreign from our own—urban and suburban Americas can be so different. We were tourists, we didn’t speak the same language. I hated the trip and left thinking I hated the city too.
Spring semester I travelled to New York for the second time. There were open slots for a Senior Seminar class trip to Manhattan. I wasn’t taking the class, but some friends were able to secure me a seat. We left Cortland for the city at seven o’clock, the sun just nipping its head over the trees, the red SUNY Cortland van pulling up a few minutes early, its doors opening for luggage, all the professional writing majors pooling in for the five-hour journey, bags under our eyes, dew on our sneakers, phones and water bottles clutched in our fingers. By the time we stopped for the bathroom at a New Jersey McDonalds three hours later, our entire 15-person caravan felt friendly with each other. Shared suffering will do that. We enjoyed our first day touring the city, visited Greenwich Village, set up shop at the Vanderbilt YMCA, got dinner at a small restaurant on 37th street and dozed off for our big Saturday, where after breakfast we were to have free time.
There is no feeling like that of stepping through the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time, 20 years old, with the freedom to not only analyze but really to feel van Goh, to look my friend Alan in the eyes and tell him this Picasso was not impressing me, to look at a Greek sculpture of Dionysus and say yes, that’s how I felt once, too. Jonny and I spent hours pouring over Cézanne; he surveyed every room of paintings while I wandered to the historical exhibits, observing 2nd century Mesopotamian limestone carvings Door lintel with lion-griffins and vase with lotus leaf, admiring Yup’ik dance masks from Alaska, even viewing perhaps the first and oldest piano in existence, built by Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence around 1720.
The Met was engrossing—I was consumed, spellbound, engaged with the openness of expression in those hundred rooms. I sat on a bench breathing in Antoine Watteau’s Head of Man, trying to decide if the man depicted was dead or alive, where he came from, when in my life I had been that man, where he’d gone, what he’d seen, what his scars were from, his muscles clenched, why his lips were so; he reminded me of a sawed-off tree, its rings visible; I could almost smell sawdust through my nostrils as I adjusted my green flannel, tied my leather shoes, ran my fingers through my hair or touched the stubble on my chin. Red and black chalk, I thought, just red and black chalk. How could it mean something?
That’s what I thought about as I sat on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the steps of the greatest monument of humanity perhaps to ever exist (though I’ll argue Wikipedia can give any museum a run for its money) in the greatest city in the world—I thought about the nature of art, the clear-tinted lens of nakedness; I thought of the shitty poems I’d written in the past, of how hard I’d tried to make them work, about how the only museum they’d end up in was the “Sophomore Creative Work: 2013” folder on my Macbook, itself hidden away in the “Undergraduate Creative Years” folder; I thought about New Constellations, the only story I’d written I’d ever felt proud of; I thought of my journal, I thought of humanness, of the wrinkles on my hands, I thought of the nakedness and vulnerability I would be exposing myself to— but I was ready to make that choice. I had found something worth pursuing, something to say “this thing is good—I will give my living to see it live.” I was, as Rose would say, ready to “enter the conversation.”
The writer William Stafford, whom I first read in a Senior Seminar class my final semester at Cortland, once noted that “a writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them. In short, Stafford is telling us not only to explore our world but to explore ourselves as well, to dive into the mysteries of meaning and consciousness, to understand. Mike Rose recalls how partway through his own literacy maturation he noticed how “knowledge was becoming a bonding agent” for him, one that enabled him “to do things in the world” (37). It all meant something!
Later that year I would apply to graduate school. The true significance was that I had begun to take myself seriously.
A writer explores all it is that time does to us.
The hazelnut coffee is hot on my lips as I lift my legs to my desk, lean back in my chair and open my computer. There is a squirrel burrowing his cache into a crevice in the oak outside my window and melting snow drips in tiny crystals to the grass and the muddy rivers pooling below.
It’s 7:02a.m. No one is awake. The thaw has begun, the conversation is ready, spring is here, and I will be writing.