Sunday, August 26, 2012

One foot in the sea and the other on land

As I transition from one coast to another, one school year to another, and one season to another, I think a lot about thresholds. I try hard to think of each phase or moment or experience in my life as a thing unto itself instead of a place between. Graduate school, for example, could be a liminal space between college and career, but it seems a shame to think of such an extended period of my life as simply a means to an end (especially in this uncertain market). Sometimes I sit in a coffee shop, reading or writing, and I really reflect on how privileged I am to be able to spend some years of my life learning and thinking and growing as a person and a scholar. How amazing it is to sit in the afternoon sunlight, reading a book and learning even more about the things I love. How incredible it is to work with students and to see them really think about literature and the world around them. Even the struggle to come up with new ideas, the intensity of teaching, the insecurities which come with grad school -- those are a part of my life, a part of all that's good in it and all that makes it worthwhile to me. These years, I must remind myself, are valuable unto themselves.

As a medievalist, the struggle against the idea of middles is constant. Though the term "Middle Ages" is certainly less pejorative than "Dark Ages," it still gives a sense of a period between the glory of Rome and the Renaissance. A placeholder in history. It seems doubtful to me that people woke up on New Year's Day of 1500 (or 1495 or 1450 or 1350 or 1300 …) and felt suddenly reborn. Even midnight on New Year's, which seems to be a crystal-clear liminal point, shatters when we consider all of the time zones of the world. Watching through a television set in the United States as the ball drops in Australia, I can't help but feel a bit unsettled about our privileging of that particular moment. Nor can I fail to notice when I reach the new year in New York before my friends in California do. And this is not to mention the fact that there are different calendars in the world that have different New Year's, and the fact that even our Gregorian calendar has been used with different New Year's in mind. In the Middle Ages there seem to have been several possible dates, and people in the Early Modern period celebrated on March 25th. How are we to find the point of transition if it keeps moving? And what do we do with a transition period, a middle, that takes up a thousand years? It's interesting that we often think of middle as center, as central. We often see those things on the periphery as less important. Yet in history as in our lives it's easy to see moments or years or centuries as simply between the real thing. Not only does this kind of thinking ignore realities of connection and continuity, but it denies the importance of the individual dots on the timeline.

On my trip home I spent some nice afternoons at the beach, visiting my much-missed Pacific Ocean, and I thought about how hard it often is to pinpoint a precise spot where one time or space ends and another begins. I walked through that tricky line on the shore where dry feet and wet feet are only moments apart, and I examined that strip of sand. What was above water one moment was below it the next, and even the extent to which the water reached was always different. The curved border between dry sand and wet sand (and even wetter sand) shifts constantly, and must be slightly different each day. Indeed, it must change throughout the day as well, and in more subtle ways than just the changing tides. As I rolled up my jeans and moved closer to the water, I noticed that the way the water moves over the sand is new each time, that the ripples of water are ever-changing and that they leave an imprint both of their shape and their substance on the sand behind them. As I tried to discern the line between the realms of ocean and sea, I found that there really is no simple answer. There is no line and there's always a line and there are a million different lines. I spoke in my paper at the recent NCS conference on the Man of Law's Tale about how the realms of land and sea are never as separate as they appear on the map, and it was good to actually look at the space between and in those realms. So often I find myself getting caught up in the theoretical. Of course I am a literature person -- examining texts is what I do. And I'm a medievalist -- thinking about things long ago is my job. But after writing so much about concepts of time and space and the ocean, it's good to get reacquainted with the ocean itself. To get my feet wet again, as it were.

On my trip I was reading Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us, and was struck by a passage from the preface to the 1961 edition describing how the floor of the deep sea "receives[s] sediments from the margins of the continents" such as "bits of wood and leaves, and … sands containing nuts, twigs, and the bark of trees" (x).The abyssal plains, therefore, include tangible pieces of the coast. And it is also the waters of the world that have carved out valleys and canyons now well above ground. Water has in many ways shaped our landscapes, just as the land provides the floor of our oceans and rivers. Carson explains of the ocean's formation that water wore away the land to create the ocean, while the minerals from these worn-away continents gave the sea its saltiness in "an endless, inexorable process that has never stopped" (7). In other words, the water continually shapes the land, while the land ceaselessly gives the ocean its salty form. Over the long history of the earth, land and sea have merged, shifted, and forged one another. Geological time, it seems, has its own ideas about topographical and temporal boundaries. To try to think of any particular space or time as its own separate entity really only works in a single instant. Even in that instant the lines are fraught, but only in that instant are lines really visible. Boundaries and borders are shifting, fleeting, intersecting. I played with this notion by snapping pictures of the space where ocean meets shore in order to try to capture some of those threshold moments. And even in my photographs, I cannot really tell for sure where water ends and sand begins. Can you?

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