dimanche 3 janvier 2010

The Year of the Yo-Yo


Can the world be divided into those who make resolutions and those who don't? Can it be further subdivided into those who keep and those who don't keep their resolutions? I have never consciously made a New Year's Resolution. Last year, I wrote somewhat tongue-in-cheekily that one of my resolutions was to be be more zen in 2009, by which I meant less apt to react emotionally and selfishly to events over which I have no control. I think I also meant less desirous of wanting to have control over events. I remember reading the book Stop-Time by Frank Conroy when I was a senior in college. In this moving memoir, the narrator talks about his life between the ages of eight and eighteen. So it is about growing up. His book is widely acclaimed among the mountains of memoirs published before, at the same time and since his was in 1967, in part because it reads like a well-crafted novel. In one episode, he talks about learning to use a yo-yo.

“The yo-yo represented my first organized attempt to control the outside world. I could see my progress in clearly defined stages, and because the intimacy of it, the almost spooky closeness I began to feel with the instrument in my hand, seemed to ensure that nothing irrelevant would interfere. (I was) finally free, in one small area at least, of the paralyzing sloppiness of life in general.”

Frank wants to learn the hardest trick, which is called The Universe. He wants to master The Universe. But it isn't until he lets go of his desire to dominate the yo-yo and let "the ghost" take over that he does. When I feel myself getting upset and spending energy and time on matters that fall outside The Universe of what I can master, I say this to myself: give up your desire to dominate the yo-yo. It's a little reminder about what matters and what doesn't.

There's always a fine balance between the satisfaction of making an effort and succeeding, on the one hand, and just letting things happen on the other. Between wanting to engineer The Universe and being astonished by what It delivers. Sometimes, being decisive and making things happen feels good; but so does letting things go and letting things happen. To make things happen or to let things happen, that is the question. Maybe the answer is both.

When I reflect back on 2009, I realize that it was a pretty good balance of making and letting. I didn't get to France in 2009; but I started work on a second master's degree. Although I don't see the two as mutually exclusive in the least, one reason I decided to stay put was that I wanted to be mentally ready for the reality of being a student again. The return has been both easy and difficult. Walking into a university classroom for the first time in almost 25 years (not counting teaching in France and China) was more daunting than it might sound. I mean, what is so hard about walking into a classroom and just taking your seat among the other students?

The first day, I looked around and immediately realized I was 30 years older than most of the students and about the same age as the professor. That was spring quarter. This fall, I was still three decades older than the students and 13 years older than the professor. I'm not saying I expected anyone to ask me what in the world I thought I was doing there with all these young people -- who belong there -- but I did feel a bit out of my element at first. I thought about all the "older students" I encountered years and years ago, both as a TA and a student at the UW, and tried to recover my thoughts about them. I do remember being somewhat fascinated by them and feeling that they seemed way more experienced and way smarter than the people my age. That annoyed me. I also remember being grudgingly impressed by their ability to be outspoken without appearing to worry about what others might think. I know I was awestruck more than once by the ease with which they begged to differ with the revered professorial authority figures I found to be so scary and all-knowing. I don't remember ever scrutinizing their wrinkles or their wardrobe. I don't remember finding them out of touch or old school. I don't remember whether they fit in or not. I don't remember thinking "Wow! He/she is older than my dad/mom!"

Now I realize that these older students probably did not give a damn about any of these things. But I think what impressed me most about them -- although I would not have been able to articulate it at the time -- was their ability to just be in the moment. Their desire not to dominate The Universe but rather to ponder it and to keep pondering even though they were old and wise.

I feel incredibly lucky at this time in my life to be a student again. It is incredibly difficult, after all these years of reading for pay and sheer pleasure, to read once again for meaning and insight. Incredibly difficult. It is time-consuming: you have to read things more than once and take notes and think about what you are reading. You have to remember what you have read. You have to write about what you have read. My work as a translator involves focusing on and transforming a particular text from one language to another and then forgetting about it. This makes the whole business of being a student more challenging. But it is so interesting to be ignorant. Socrates said that awareness of one's own ignorance is the essence of wisdom. Maybe I am finally wise.