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Friday, January 31, 2014

Secret

I'll bet you have one.  A memory so secret that even you have forgotten that it belongs to you.  Forgotten, that is, until something startles you and prompts it out into the open air.  Last Friday, Bill and I were in the parking lot off Albert between Melrose Place and the liquor store when I saw a young woman walking across the parking lot, alone, jaunty, as if being alone were just fine and if there were a party around the corner and as if she knew, indisputably, who she was.  I wanted that.  I felt a moment of uncharacteristic self-pity:  I wanted to have had that while I was young.  Mind you:  I'm lucky to have it now, parts of it, the jauntiness some days, the sense of who I am on the days when administrivia doesn't threaten to drown me.  I have it when I teach and write and puzzle out the cats and have lunch with my daughter and cook dinner for Bill.  But that aching desire to have been someone other than the person I was in my twenties followed me around for a couple of days.  'Youth is wasted on the young,' I groaned with just about every senior I know. 

And then this memory fell out of its little synapse into my eyes and onto my skin.  I had just finished my master's degree at the University of Michigan.  I'd moved a stripped-down household and three cats to Ann Arbor for two whole summers, but it was only going to take me a couple of months to finish the degree, so this time I packed up only my summer clothes and stayed with friends.  It was a summer of working very, very hard because I not only had to finish my last two classes, I had to pummel my Russian back into shape so I could take and pass my language exam--the final barrier to my degree.  Kind Professor Shishkov was coming into his office a couple of times a week to meet me and to set me passages to translate and then going over flaws in the the translation.  He looked like a small, bald hussar and had a remarkably deep seductive voice that didn't fit with his waistline or his bald head.  In spite of the heavy workload, I found times to drive the wooded hills around Ann Arbor with one of my roommates and to occasionally go to the pub to hear blues bands.

After the final exams, after taking and passing my Russian exam and taking a bottle of wine to Professor Shishkov, while waiting for the weekend when my mother would come get me and my single suitcase, I went over to the new periodical reading room of the Graduate Library and read newspapers.  I read The Detroit Free Press and The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune.  I read the job pages mostly.  For reasons I could not quite explain, for reasons that I could give you now but that would be composed of hindsight, I did not want to go back to the life I was living.  I wanted a job.  I wanted to be that young woman walking off jauntily to get herself a bottle of scotch and then going home to read or write.  I wanted the independence to read and write and think.  I wanted to strip down to youthful, adventurous essentials; I wanted not to care where I lived or what I ate, but to have a vision of a future that glowed like a hot August prairie moon, huge at the horizon.

Here's the funny thing about that memory:  I'm seeing the future in it.  There must be a visual metaphor for this experience, perhaps the mise en abyme, as in Van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage where Van Eyck paints what he really can't see:  the wedding guests admiring the new couple.  Or at the Boston Institute of Arts there was a glass case full of pale blue and green glass bottles that were multiplied row on row by mirrors.  Is there a way to hold a mirror to the past and so see the future? 

Oddly enough, at sixty-three, I think I'm about to launch into my younger self's adventure.  That sense explains my crazy desire to get rid of stuff, my hunger to hunker down and think.  I have two wonderful classes this term, so if I simply organize my Mondays, they are thinking days, lessons in the contemporary Canadian novel for me as they are for my students.  When I'm lucky, I can get a bit of writing in on Friday.  These days, though, reading the files of students applying to our graduate program, or reading files of my colleagues (who inspire me) for the department's and the faculty's performance review make me feel as if there is no I to go on an adventure.

But my vision of that young woman in the parking lot and her relationship to the young woman I once was in the Graduate Library Reading Room with her secret are keeping my walk a bit jauntier than it usually is when I scramble from meeting to meeting or read ill-written graduate application file after ill-written file.  They remind me that I will dive deep into language and story in 10 weeks, coming up for air only when I choose.  And occasionally, when my spirits need colour and predictable patterns, I will make cheerful quilts for women in shelters, relishing the silence of working with my hands. 

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