A reply to: A letter from Alina
What joy to receive your letter! So you’ve come through your trial and made it out the other side.
Not many get the chance to live through the mythic experience of Orpheus and Eurydice–but then, not many of us travelled through the eras past to step into the present day. Nor do we have step-fathers returned from the grave!
And not many of us possess your bravery, Alina, for surely, it’s in finding the strength to trust even when in the grips of fear that true bravery lies.
So now your curse has been lifted, a gift from the strength of your mother, Robin, and your own brave heart.
What is next for you and Robin?
And how does it feel to have the curse removed?
You asked what it was like to be a professor of literature.
It was my life for a very long time–over thirty years, and before that stretched a decade of preparation.
There were things I liked, things I loved, things I tolerated, things I rejected, things I railed against, things I professed, things I chafed at, things I adored.
In that way, it was much like any job, I suppose.
The finest moments centered around the catching-hold of an idea. One year, we all went mad for Thoreau; I nearly lost eight students to “The Walden Effect.”
When a certain type of sophomore first reads Walden, something dangerous can spark. Once it does, this bureaucratic life that muffles our everyday becomes intolerable. And when that happens, the susceptible sophomore turns to me with a bright eye and declares, “I must do something meaningful.” I came to recognize the signs.
“Fine, yes, you will do something meaningful, but AFTER writing this term paper.”
“No! I need to experience life directly!”
Before I lost too many students, I tossed in a lecture on Thoreau’s life: He was a student before he dropped out. Then he ran a pencil factory. He taught. He found meaning in the quiet and loud tasks of a single day: And then he dropped out. But even then, he didn’t really drop out.
His cabin was short walk from Emerson’s home, and nearly daily, Thoreau’s old crowd dropped by to visit, to read, to play chess, to wonder at his quaint life. While all along, Thoreau was studying, reading, writing. He lived deliberately, yes–But one needn’t drop out to live deliberately.
I suppose my quest as a literature professor was to craft my own deliberate life. Literature forges my path through beauty.
Perhaps that old aphorism applies: You can take the professor out of the university, but you can’t take the university out of the professor.
My academic eye has become native by now.
My greatest joy still lies in the alchemy of spirit and word. The other day, a friend dropped by.
‘You know I’ll be thanking you forever,” she said.
“For what?” I asked.
“T.S. Eliot,” she said.
“Four Quartets?” I asked. I recommended it the last time we spoke.
“‘At the still point of the turning world,'” she quoted. “‘Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards…'”
She found Burnt Norton online and we recited together:
“at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
My friend laughed. “To think I’ve lived this long without knowing these words!”
“Oh, but you have known them,” I replied. For that is the mystery of literature: that is what makes the sophomore rebel when first reading Thoreau, that’s what makes the old one rejoice when reading Eliot. It’s the words we’ve known and lived and heard echoing through our souls. Only it has taken these writers to express it in words that we can share with another, and even with our own inward heart.
Alina, my bookworm friend, may you also know many happy moments hearing your soul’s whispers echoed in the literature you read!
Wishing love to you, Robin, and whatever whispers may be stirring now that your curse has been lifted!
Your steadfast correspondent,