Tuesday, November 23, 2004

shifting on a paradigm

A little while back, near the end of October in 2002, I was on a train heading west. My friend Will and I had some things packed, and we had both finished high school about 5 months earlier. We had never done anything like this before. The train pulled out of Sackville, New Brunswick, and choo-chood into the dark early evening of late fall. We stopped in Moncton, and I could see rain outside flickering into puddles, and people with hoods up, to protect themselves as they walked along the platform. The train got going again. Will was sleeping, or something, and I was writing in my journal. I looked across the aisle to some children and their mother, and I remember that I felt as though the world had shifted and deposited me in an alternate universe. I was on my own, I was going somewhere unknown, and most of all, I was on my own. This grand new perspective had been handed to me without much ceremony, unless you count getting a high school diploma, and that signifies something else, really. Without warning I was in someone else's shoes, and that someone else was intimately known to me. It was the next phase of my life. What an odd sensation. I knew what it meant to know your bank account numbers and worry about them, or conversely, to celebrate. I knew about planning a move and making it. I would soon learn about rent, about jobs, and bus schedules.

There have been smaller versions of this moment since: landing in a foriegn country, and all that that entailed. But somehow the first, large perspective, of a (somewhat) independent person paying her own bills, has just continued growing to accommodate the changes.

In the past month, with the end of my first academic term drawing nigh, with research papers to do and major exams to study for, a new shift is occurring. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the new perspective I'm gaining is of academia: the ivory tower, the real lives that happen within it, and how this network of universities and work and papers and a new legion of recruits each September affects the rest of the world. The diversity in university is immense: the library is proof of that; the titles of obscure papers pulled at random from journals are proof of this. At first the density of the words stymies. Scholars seem to be able to write thier papers in a secret code: that of technical jargon, un-indented paragraphs and sentences longer than any in history. Why would they do this? It is frustrating to consider this rhetorical question, especially late in the evening in the library stacks with essential research to do and no knowledge of how to proceed. Librarians are frightening, and if you don't even know the question to ask, how on earth are you to find the answer? The library seems nothing more than a facade: it looks organized, but in reality is a monstrous cavern of untouchable jewels: that is, spiral-bound and hardcover books, more than one could ever imagine, the organization of which was designed by a madman who has since thrown away the blueprint.

But slowly, you (I) learn. You learn how to find the call numbers, and how to make photocopies, and by gum, you even learn how to cite properly! To top it off, you find it is not as difficult as before (though still a struggle) to sit down in front of the computer and make the words come out. It is all possible now. The world is laid out before you.

And this is what has been happening. But then I got to thinking: of all the papers out there, of all the brains furiously, busily, writing, pumping out theories and coming to conclusions and citing where their ideas came from. All the long complicated sentences composed and then unravelled by readers like yarn. I'm not going to say I asked myself, "what on earth for?" because such a question would cause me to go into paroxysms of self-doubt and circles of argument. I mean, let's be honest, if I were asking myself that now, I really ought not to be here. And the truth is, I love it here. So upon thinking of the reams and reams of academic output, I've come to this: each of us in a university is a bit like a monk, the way we have a singular connection to what we study. It takes up a large, indescribable portion of a life, from what I can tell, standing here at the beginning like I am. The excitement that a writer on, say, 17th century novels feels is really only relatable to another of the same interests. Yet we co-exist, support one another in our pursuits simply for the sake of the pursuing.

And all of this is sort of coming down upon me, or I'm moving forward to meet it. It changes the way I look at streets, at storefronts, as I sit on the bus in the sunlight, other folks around me, an older lady, a large man reading a novel, two young women talking about the YWCA. In my research and building of ideas for papers, the constant second-guessing, having-to-prove, spills over into the rest of my life. It is like my brain is a knife, made for cutting things open to see inside, and I'm sharpening it. This is what it feels like.

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