On the Nature of Things, Lucretius

ImageThis was a syllabus requirement in one of the best graduate courses I’ve taken thus far—we were grappling with incredibly complex ideas (the nature of humans, the various ways people have defined human [male, free, white, straight, desiring, etc]) and reading primary sources to fuel our conversations. So we read Plato and Lucretius and Marx and Lee Edleman and Judith Butler and many more. It was terrifying. And it was amazing. Instead of reading about the brilliant minds—instead of ceding the authority to the scholars to tell us what they meant—WE were the scholars. Wow.

Isn’t this beautiful?

But shining grainfields sprout, and twigs grow green
on trees; the trees grow, too, and bear their fruits;
hence our kind and the animal kind are fed,
hence we see happy cities bloom with children
and leafy woods all filled with young bird-song;
hence flocks wearied with fat lay themselves down
out in fertile fields, and bright white liquor
leaks from their swollen teats; hence newborn lambs
gambol on wobbly legs through tender grass,
their baby hearts tipsy with winy milk.
Things seem to perish, then, but they do not:
nature builds one from another, and lets no thing
be born unless another helps by dying. (251-264)

Also this:

But now on sea and land and in high heaven
before our eyes we see things moving, here,
there, everywhere, but if there were no void,
they’d not so much be lacking speed and movement
as never, in reason, have come to be at all
in a world of matter tight-packed and motionless. (340-345)

In Angels in America, the angel screams for the humans to just STOP MOVING! It’s the fault of all of the moving that has created the rumbling in heaven, the earthquake in San Francisco, the absence of God.

Lucretius says motion is possible because of voids mixed in with the matter. I can’t move forward if a solid wall is in front of me. But to take that a slightly different way, perhaps it is the void that causes the movement. Desire, the attempt to incorporate something else into yourself (I’m not talking, strictly, about sex, which is, of course, always only an approximation anyway. I think any time you put an object on that sentence—any time it becomes “I desire [ ]” instead of “I desire”, we’ve begun speaking in metaphors.) But that desire, desire with a capital D, causes movement. My thinking here is influenced by Lacan’s mirror—we’re always seeking the regaining of that lost, fleeting self-recognition, that knowledge of whole-ness. And so the attempts to incorporate the other into our void [Desire], compelling motion.

And that’s what I think, on this broilingly hot Sunday in July.

To Turn the Gray Skies Blue

To Turn the Gray Skies Blue

The beginning of the semester (as mentioned a few days ago) has been a bit rough. I’m gradually getting into the swing of things, remembering the adrenalin rush of a new connection or perspective, catching up with friends, establishing achievable routines. But it’s been raining for days, and I really (still) just want to nestle in bed with the covers over my head.

In the absence of that possibility, here are a few things that are making this week more manageable:

Evelina, by Frances Burney. I thought this book would be dreadful, another moralistic screed against fallen women (I’m looking at you, Pamela). Rather, it’s an absolutely hilarious comedy of manners that has much more in common with Austen than Richardson. I laughed aloud on the Metro today, high praise indeed.

My new mini iPad, which has taken the place of the three notebooks and the multiple article print-outs that make me feel like Quasimodo by the end of the day. And also, practicality aside, it’s just so incredibly cool.

Candles. And bath salts. And hot tea. And the million other little things that my impossibly sweet boyfriend gives me that make even the grayest skies a bit less leaden. Or, perhaps more to the point, the fact that said boyfriend will be here on Friday.

I’ve got it good. I know this. My problems, such as they are, reflect so much privilege that I can’t even articulate them without embarrassment. Nonetheless, trivial or no, emotions can sometimes pack a wallop. Until mine chill, these are, well, a few of my favorite things.

Endings. Beginnings. And Adrienne Rich.

My last class was on Thursday. Yep, the last class. I’m officially almost done –one exam away—with my undergraduate education. Well, for the second time. I already did this once. The last time I did this (er, eight years ago?) my thoughts around graduation all centered around this guy who, in retrospect, was about as wrong for me as possible. He would have made my parents so happy though. And I was late to graduation—I don’t remember why—and I had absolutely no idea how my hair looked after haphazardly pinning on the  mortarboard, and so I felt even more awkward than usual. And that’s all I remember. Lots of drama about a really wrong guy and needing to fix my hair.

There’s a lot that I regret about my first undergraduate degree. I made a lot of mistakes. I spent four years at a college that wasn’t accredited, that only offered two degrees for women (Christian Ministries and Christian Education—for the preachers’ wives and the teachers’ wives respectively) and a lot of rules about how women ought to behave.  I knew I wasn’t in the right place much of the time, I talked about changing schools during several breaks from school, but I couldn’t really see a way out, I didn’t know how to change things.  I wish I had. I wish I’d been stronger, more sure of myself at age 21 or 22. Able to jump ship a little earlier. Oh well.

In her essay “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” Adrienne Rich said,

It’s hard to look back on the limits of my understanding a year, five years ago—how did I look without seeing, hear without listening? It can be difficult to be generous to earlier selves, and keeping faith with the continuity of our journeys is especially hard in the United States, where identities and loyalties have been shed and replaced without a tremor, all in the name of becoming….

I love that, the reminder to be generous to our past selves, to try to understand our mistakes and complications and the things that seem so stupid later. The essay as a whole is talking about Rich’s transition from a second wave to a third wave perspective—she says she initially thought the category “Woman” to outweigh all other categories of nationality or religion (a traditionally second wave perspective), but then, later, she saw the problems with that generalization. Her change in perspective is historically interesting, but her acceptance of her changes is what I find most fascinating. She accepts that humans aren’t static. When we’re wrong, sometimes we think we’re right. We don’t know everything yet. And that’s ok.

I found that paragraph in my first semester, three-four years ago, at this—my current—college. A professor assigned a few selections from The Essential Feminist Reader, and I read the whole thing. Voraciously. Incessantly. Compulsively. It wasn’t academic curiosity, it wasn’t analytical, it was personal. It was therapy. (And god, did I need therapy.) Reading what other women had written about their lives and their politics and their romances answered my questions. They made me think about questions that I hadn’t yet considered. It gave me a different perspective, a wider perspective. And I needed a different perspective so badly.

I’m excited and terrified about the next step. I’m starting a master’s degree at American University in August. I’m moving to D.C.. I want to volunteer at the Sewell-Belmont house and join marches and read books and talk about literature. I’m guessing there will be a lot of stress and coffee in there too, but I’m happy.  And scared. But  mostly happy.

Eight years ago, trying to figure out what in pluperfect hell I was supposed to do next, I’d never have imagined that things could turn out so well.

I don’t know how she does it…

…but now I do.

I got the best advice today. I was talking to a fellow classmate during the last three minutes or so before class started. We both were bitching a bit about the stress of the end of the semester–papers and deadlines and presentations, oh my–when she let drop that she was taking seven classes. Impressive. And that she is signed up for eight in the fall. Possibly crazy. And that she successfully completed seventeen credit hours during the summer break. (She wasn’t bragging, I expressed concern about her fall plans, she was convincing me that she could do it)

And, as she told me this, I started out with an Oh, I’ve been there too kind of smile/nod thing. I had a seven-class semester once. It sucked, but I survived. Then I got worried about her when she said she was upping the ante next semester, and then, by the time she started talking about last summer, I basically just wanted her to stop talking so I could ask my question:

How in the hell is that possible? 

And she told me her secret. She said, and I quote, “Right now, school is my job. I have another part-time job, but that’s just a part-time job. This is my job. And since this is my job, I work on it, every day, full-time. I work on every class, every day. About an hour. And so far I’ve been fine.”

Then she flipped her planner around so I could see it. And it looked like an elementary school teacher’s lesson plan book. At certain hours, she was studying Spanish. Then she went to chemistry, then she went to French lit. These aren’t the times that the classes met. These are the times that she, personally, spent an hour with the books. Not eight hours the day before the test. Not an entire weekend writing the paper that is due Monday. An hour a day per class.

Dude. That seems positively revolutionary to me. Somewhere in the last year or so, I read some exercise guru talk about how to avoid putting off exercise. S/he said that if procrastination is your problem, the every-other-day workout plan won’t help you–you’ll always be able to convince yourself that tomorrow is the day “on” and today is the day “off.” This individual said that instead, determine that you work out every day. Period. And sometimes that’s going to be a jog around the block with the dog and sometimes that is letting Jillian Michaels’ latest DVD kick your ass. But you do something every day. And that made so much sense to me.

And this is the same concept. Every day. This is the job. Earn the weekend.


(She also said that she puts all deadlines into her calendar a week earlier than they are in the schedule, just in case something goes wrong. And at that point, I decided she should probably be canonized. Or committed. And then class started.)