Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Find newer posts soon at my forthcoming blog, Revolutionary Time.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Re-routed by a Dead Language

Last week, outside our kitchen window. Photo by Warren.
My last blog post put me into a tailspin, inducing BLOG-AVOIDANCE.  When I tried to track how my life changed after I suffered the small academic failure of doing badly in Greek, the drawing I made looked a lot like this spider web, spun outside our kitchen window last week. I traveled sideways as often as out. I got lost.

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 . . .
I've been thinking lately about turning points, how I stumbled into the life I've lived, how the failure to construe, for example, led to further failures and some successes, to doors closing and others opening.

"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."