|Last week, outside our kitchen window. Photo by Warren.|
I'll continue down one resulting route a little way.
At Stanford in those days certain instructors seemed to channel questions to their TAs--Gordon Craig, for example, from whom I took Nineteenth-Century German History. Socially illiterate as I was, I sensed that his office hours were window dressing, not to be used.
Antony Raubitschek had at least one TA. I remember a tall, dark-haired woman who (in the days when we were all trying to look like Joan Baez) never appeared without a scarf tied over her hair. Her sharp tongue scared me. Maybe it occurred to me that she was a contagion I might catch.
But Rabitschek himself might have welcomed questions. He invited us to his home, after all. In his book-lined front room, I felt struck dumb, like Zechariah visited by the angel Gabriel. I didn't believe the news I was receiving, that a room like this might someday be mine, that I could become a scholar and spend my life reading books. Even before I started having trouble with Greek, I couldn't believe in that scholarly future. I might be a scholarship girl, but I'd never be a scholar. Maybe not believing in that future played a part in not living it.
The only thing I managed to say that night, over tea and cookies for about ten people, was to Raubitschek himself: "Your cat wants in."A pure white, long-haired cat was sitting outside a sliding glass door, staring first at Raubitschek and then, because I noticed her, at me. "Oh yes, that's Snowball," Raubitschek said, and opened the door.
When I was teaching at community colleges, I did everything I could to get my students to come to my office. Few enough did, struggling as they were with minimum-wage jobs and, in some cases, chaotic home lives. But some came. Some talked to me after class. Class, the other kind, makes a difference, always, in how confident one is, how worthy of help one is able to feel. I must have looked to my students a little like Raubitschek looked to me. A little.
I've started studying Latin these days. Have I mentioned this? After Latin (in a decade or so), maybe a return to Greek. At the end of chapter 1 of Wheelock's Latin, 7th ed. is this basic advice:
"Read aloud and for comprehension, trying to get the sense of the entire passage. Remember that subject-object-verb is a common pattern . . . but word order is quite variable in Latin and so you must pay careful attention to word endings . . ."
I've already described how inflected languages work. They are complicated. Where was a paragraph like this one in my beginning Greek text? Why not something like this big-picture advice that admitted the difficulty of the task? Why didn't Raubitschek offer advice like this himself? I suppose he assumed we'd all already studied Latin and had learned the mental multitasking that construal amounts to.
So I dropped Greek. If I'd just said to myself, oh well, you're good at some things but not others, so what!, I might have stayed the course. My Western Civ teacher had, for example, told me that I was among the best students he'd ever had. He seemed a little loony, so I didn't take that very seriously, but I did have some countervailing evidence that construing Greek badly wasn't the end of me.
Unfortunately, Greek was tied to the first and still the strongest notion I had of a future. I was going to be a minister. In Raubitschek's living room, an academic career had suggested itself and had clearly scared me almost to death. I continued to think that I wouldn't strive to do work that accrued credit and a good life to me, but do something for others. This is what I was used to, and stemmed more from codependency than from altruism. I'd been caring for a sick father all through high school--he'd been caring for me, too, of course, in his way--and tending to a disappointed mother as well, mostly by steering clear of her. After Greek, this need to minister had to be redirected, and this was not so easy. A quarter later I left Stanford, and it was a year-and-a-half before I went back to school at U.C. Berkeley, no longer a scholarship girl. I didn't need a scholarship, however. In those days, a Berkeley education (featuring one of the best English depts. in the country) cost only . . . well, I don't want to depress you. My life has been good, full of books and children and Warren. BUT . . .
"The unexamined life is surely worth living," says Adam Phillips in the prologue to Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. I wouldn't have conceded that until a few years ago, when I began appreciating people who seemed to lack self-consciousness, or had set it aside. I'd always examined my life quite a bit, a little too much. I'd been a little hard on myself. Now I think I'll ponder, in a measured way and not too long, the life I didn't live. Phillips says I've been doing this all along:
"But is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not."