In a pre-internet world, gaining knowledge required some leg work. Either you filled yourself with loosey goosey tribal knowledge or you did some deep sea diving at the library. Our equivalent of JFGI was a trip to the library where we would consult with a librarian and/or shuffle through the card catalog under subjects or authors, drilling down to very specific Dewey Decimaled books, only to scratch the number onto a notecard with a dull pencil, and then with fingers crossed, follow the breadcrumbs to a shelf where you held your breath, slowly tapping each spine, until the decimal number appeared! And then the author! Boom! Exhale. You did it!
In order to know anything, like really know it, you had to dive in—experience and/or focused reading—these were the tools of the times. Perhaps it wasn’t that binary. Maybe there was the occasional Cliff Notes (aka my generation’s version of JFGI) reading of Othello to get by in English class or an LA or NY Times headline skimming to avoid being an idiot in casual conversation.
A couple of days ago, I was eyeballing one of the bookshelves in our dining room and my eyes landed on a very old edition of The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot. “Where did you come from, old friend?” I asked, blowing off its dusty layer and then fanned it open only to find what was a parking ticket from my undergrad days. Actually, an “almost” parking ticket, as it had this note:
Evidently, I had a friend who was also on parking patrol who noticed what was probably an unpaid utility bill hanging out on my back seat and wrote me a love note instead of a violation. Thank god—these were some lean years. I barely had enough change for a cup of coffee let alone another parking ticket.
Yes, another. If it wasn’t a parking ticket, it was a speeding ticket. If it wasn’t a speeding ticket, it was a broken taillight or some other safety infraction. I seemed to specialize in offense and recklessness in my late teens and early 20s. I wanted to go forward and fast, but the rules, man…always getting in the way of my velocity. One day, I’ll tell you about the chase that ended in an embarrassing sobfest surrounded by the kindest crew of CHiPs. One day. Not today.
Anyways, back to T.S. Eliot. A couple of days after finding the dusty copy, I came across a slimmer version of the Four Quartets, hiding in my basement office. A message from the poetry gods? Maybe ol’ T.S. himself? I’m a sucker for these poems—four reflections on memory, time, and the human quest to find meaning. In college, I had taken a senior seminar in Eliot, a rare treat to spend an entire quarter exclusively on one writer. On the first day of the course, our professor asked us how we had come across Eliot, as this work wasn’t exactly easy reading or accessible. My classmates, per the usual of any lit class, pontificated and puffed forth because everyone in their twenties knows absolutely everything about everything. In my own pretentious way, I did the same, offering that my mom had his poetry laying around. You know, as one does. A little T.S. Eliot next to the fire alongside the complete works of Whitman, Whittier, and Dickinson to round out the mix. My professor was impressed. It was a stretch, but it wasn’t completely untrue. What I left off in all my puffery was that I had learned of Eliot through a historical romance novel. My mom was an avid reader and her collection of books offered a portal to history, art, and great writers albeit through Danielle Steel and Susan Howatch, but still, I got there. And it was through Howatch that I found Eliot, his thoughts and verse woven through juicy family dramas spanning decades and hundreds of sexy pages. No doubt my classmates would have found this decidedly low brow entry point an affront to their complex sensibilities; however, like many kids of my generation, I suspect that’s how many of them came across the “greats,” too. Honesty wasn’t exactly a seminar tactic. Honesty is only something that comes with time, when you no longer have to resort to puffery for status. Honesty and its buddy, curiosity, plus time—these are our tools for connecting the dots and making sense of the world at large and our place in it.
And so, amidst a pile of new parking tickets (sorry, Dave), volumes of poetry, and juicy novels, I get the benefit of middle age to find the patterns, to learn and unlearn who I am; who you are. I get the benefit of my mom's reading, which inspired my own love---T.S. Eliot would eventually take me to Claremont, CA where I would seek out stories of his lover, Emily Hale, a Scripps College professor.. And in Claremont, I would meet my first loves: my mentor, Kirk Delman, who kindly allowed me to work in the art collection at Scripps College and for the first time in my life, helped me settle into just being me. And, I would meet a certain graduate student who I would marry one day on my lunch break, who just a few months later, would move with me to Japan and then finally to Oregon to begin anew. I get the benefit of holding none of it tightly, because time has shown me that all changes and remains the same.
Little Gidding - III
There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives - unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:
For liberation - not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
Begins as an attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.
--T.S Eliot, 1942
For the rest, 821.912.