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?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Musings on Trash and Treasure

As I mentioned in my last post, I had an absolutely amazing time at the NCS conference in Portland last month. I was very excited to be a part of the Animate Objects and Ecologies sessions helmed by Allan Mitchell, and I found myself both delighted and deeply relieved that my paper was as well-received as it was.  As always, I was gifted with an array of deeply helpful feedback before and after the actual presentation, and I came away from the experience both inspired and encouraged in my work.

I was especially excited by the energy in the question and answer portion of our session.  It really took the form of a lively conversation, which was pleasantly surprising in no small part because of the early start time and the fact that Thursday was the final day of the conference.  Initially, I had wondered how our papers would speak to one another. Siobhan Bly Calkin was set to present on the holy lance of Antioch, Laura Diener on medieval textiles, and I on Chaucerian images of books.  On the surface, the kinds of objects we planned to examine seemed to have little in common, but as the session progressed it became very clear that we were all speaking along uncannily convergent lines.  Each of us, in our own ways, addressed issues at the heart of the previous session devoted to animate objects.  In particular, we ended up posing and addressing questions similar to one that  Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and others raised the day previously: namely, what happens when objects don't behave the way that we expect or wish them to?

There were an array of wonderful questions and comments made throughout the remainder of our session that morning, but one in particular really got me thinking, and I promised Kristi that I would write a small post on it.  Laura, at one point in our conversation, asked how we humans wish to be remembered through the objects that we leave behind, which made me think immediately of two things: 1. My first job at a small archaeological firm in Williamsburg, Virginia, and 2. A wunderkammer (curiosity cabinet) by Mark Dion at the Tate Modern. 

The first job that I ever had as a young person was at a place called Cultural Resources, Inc. It's a small archaeological firm located in Williamsburg, VA, and I was hired on to wash artifacts as they were brought in from various dig sites around the state. It sounded incredibly glamorous and Indiana Jones-ish at first, but the vast majority of time I washed bags of nails and clay pipe bowls.  I probably washed thousands of nails that summer. Bags upon bags of old, rusted nails. My days were filled with mud and weary iron. Finding a brightly colored pottery shard amidst the sea of nails and pipe bowls was a special occasion. I became deeply familiar with the contours, the shapes, and the smells of those broken things. The vast majority of what I touched in that job, I discovered, came from trash pits accidentally unearthed by contractors and builders around the state. Whenever they dug into such a trash pit, which would have been filled several centuries ago with items too broken for repair, all construction had to stop until an archaeological firm could come in and exhume these items —items that were once worthless but now had the opportunity to speak and, we hoped, say something about where they came from.

Artifacts from a kitchen midden (i.e. trash pit) in Colonial Williamsburg.  The blogger who snapped this image was informed by her guide on a tour of the Ravenscroft dig site that the midden was "the most helpful discovery at an archeological site like this . . . [because it] provide[d] a valuable indication of human settlement at a site."

I do remember a particularly eventful couple of months the summer following where we actually handled a series of slave skeletons as they came to us from Fort A.P. Hill. The soldiers there had been digging foxholes for some sort of drill and accidentally unearthed an unmarked slave cemetery. Enter the crew from Cultural Resources who, much to the consternation of those on base, kept finding skeletons to exhume.  Under normal circumstances, the idea of touching and washing a human skull — let alone a skull with a massive root creeping into its mouth and out of a right eye socket — would probably have horrified me. I was so tired of nails and pipe bowls, however, that the obvious morbidity of the objects I had to handle didn't even occur to me. I was simply thrilled have something different to handle. Even when I had a child's skeleton completely disintegrate in my hands when I gently released it from its wrappings. Even when I had to spend eight hours a day under a constant stream of water, wood kebab stick and a toothbrush in hand, to delicately remove the mud from the top surface of the bones.  The only piece of the bone that is of value and can reveal intricate medical details about the person who it once belonged is that very top layer. Peel that away with the mud, and his or her story is lost. This stint with the skeletons, however, was but a punctuation in my career of artifact washing. The rest of the time was spent opening bags of trash-made-treasure, washing it so that experts could analyze it. 

I found the work simultaneously mundane and fascinating.  To be sure, washing the same genus of artifact over and over again could get a bit dull. But even still, I would often find my mind wandering as I washed these broken pieces, marveling over the fact that we now placed so much value in them when they had been casually discarded centuries before. Looking back, I realize how deeply fortunate I was to have been able to work at this place for my very first job. How many other 15-year-olds get the chance to handle the past in such a way?  

Fast-forward to the summer after my junior year in college.  It had been at least three years since my work at Cultural Resources.  I was over in London, spending some time exploring the city before beginning an abroad program in Bath.  I decided one day to explore the Tate Modern for the first time, and I encountered -- among other fascinating installations -- Mark Dion's "Tate Thames Dig" (1999). It was a huge, double-sided cabinet with an array of small drawers on either side.  Curiosity certainly got the better of me, and I decided to investigate. Upon pulling open a drawer, I nearly laughed out loud. There they were: rusted 17th or 18th century nails, pipe bowls arranged by shape and hue, and pottery shards.  I thought I'd escaped these things -- I'm sure I had dreams of nails and pipes during those summers -- and yet here they were, haunting me all the way over in England. I swung around to the other side and opened a few of the drawers there to see what they contained. One held an array of plastic bottle tops, arranged by color to create a rainbow of detritus. Another was full of doll legs and arms. My initial reading of this installation was that the one side contained 17th and 18th century trash items, and that the other contained modern refuse, forming a kind of commentary on the things that we value or devalue based on age, historical worth, etc. As it turns out, however, the organizational methods for this installation are more discursive. I recently learned that had I opened more of the drawers, I would have found an overlap of time periods.  Dion deliberately kept himself from imposing too strict of an order on the objects that he found along the Thames in order to allow viewers to form their own opinions about the objects he collected.  My encounter with this installation, then, was one of serendipitous selectivity, as the drawers I opened on either side formed discrete divides between the old and the new, artifact and litter, treasure and trash.

And now to fast-forward to the Animate Objects (Part the Second) session at NCS. I brought both of these anecdotes up in response to Laura’s question and proposed – through them –- a related but distinct query: do we, in the end, actually have any control over the objects we leave behind and how they will speak for us in the future? The answer that springs from the anecdotes above seems to be no.  I’m usually not in the business of making broad claims about humanity (because I typically have to convince undergraduate writers to do otherwise), but it seems to me that a great many of us want desperately to be remembered, to live on in the things (animate and inanimate, tangible and intangible) that we leave behind. Achilles, after all, was said to have chosen a brutal death in his youth so that he could enjoy that kind of eternal life.  However, if Achilles existed at all, I doubt he would have anticipated that his name is most often cited today not for his martial feats in the killing fields along the Scamander, but as the name of posterior leg tendon. He is remembered most for what killed him, that small part of flesh covered by the hand of an overly-protective goddess mother. I have little doubt that the Achilles we encounter in The Iliad would have chosen a different legacy for himself if given the opportunity. In like fashion, though we create so many beautiful things on this earth, the majority of what we leave behind, and what we risk being remembered by, is waste. A few hundred years from now, that is what archeologists will be digging up in abundance. To be sure, objects of special beauty and intricacy will have priority as they do today in places like Cultural Resources, but those objects come along so very rarely. More than likely, they will work (as we do today) with the fragmented detritus of an older time and try, as best they can, to riddle meanings out of it all.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

NCS: A Belated Retrospectve

It’s been a long, long while since I contributed to this blog, and as a result I'm a bit backlogged with things I want to post! Since my last substantial entry, I finished my dissertation, defended in April, and moved to California just two days after graduation in May. Between all of that, continuing to teach online, and wrist surgery (Part the First took place in early July, and Part the Second just two days ago), life has definitely been at its busiest! I have, at regular intervals, kind of felt like this guy:

Since May, I’ve been laboring away on the first of a few retrospectives on my time in Rochester, a task that is proving more challenging than I’d anticipated. I will post it eventually, but in the meantime, I’m going to start contributing again with entries that behave themselves more immediately!

Excited as I was to make the move out to California, leaving Rochester was incredibly hard. I went to college in the same town where I attended high school, and so the move to graduate school was the first one that I made completely on my own terms. Rochester was the place where I met many of my closest friends, where I got engaged, and where, in many respects, I really began to come into my own.  California has certainly treated me very well so far -- and I cannot express how grateful I am to be living in the same house with my husband again! -- but the magnitude of everything I left behind has had me feeling more than a little displaced these past few months.  It’s a feeling I know and understand having grown up in a military family, but I found myself nevertheless needing something to boost my spirits -– something to help me reconnect with the things I love in the midst of newness and uncertainty. 

The NCS conference proved to be just that.  I arrived in Portland very worn out from the transitioning, the surgery, a variety of other stressors, and – I’ll admit it –the mad rush to write a conference paper that made sense to someone outside of my own head.  As soon as the conference began, however, I started to feel a bit more like my old self. Reuniting with friends and making new ones, wandering around an unfamiliar city of impossibly friendly people, eating excellent food (good lord, Voodoo Donuts!!) and enjoying an array of deeply meaningful conversations certainly buoyed my spirits. And the sessions themselves were truly innervating -– I don’t know when I’ve been to a conference so rich and alive with ideas and collaborative spirit.

One of the many things I love about NCS is its structure.  The thematic threads were new to me back in Siena (my first NCS conference, and what a conference it was!!), and I do love their effect –- the way in which they organically encourage extended explorations and conversations. I found the threads this year especially cohesive and in alignment with one another. Papers spoke to each other across sessions in the most serendipitous of ways, and on more than one occasion I found myself so innervated by the energy of a session that I couldn’t wait to get back to writing and to research -– a feeling I had truly begun to miss. The transcendently insane pre-dissertation-filing extravaganza had burned that fire down to a fairly decrepit pile of embers (20 hours a day of editing, as well as deciding, in a fit of madness, to read your entire dissertation out loud to yourself in order to catch all of your typos will certainly do that!).  I was so relieved, as a result, to feel my old enthusiasms returning.

I attended a number of compelling sessions and could very easily devote an entire post to each of them! I will, in the meantime, touch  on some of the highlights. My conferencing began with the Gender and Race panel, and I was absolutely fascinated by Chris Chism’s paper on Mandeville.  She focused on two particular episodes -- one involving a king's dragon-daughter and another involving a sparrow hawk –- to point out the alternative and more peaceable modes of Othering that the Mandeville-author puts forward. Listening to her careful interpretation and contextualization of these episodes really brought home to me the importance of balancing what I like to call 'expansive and contractive reading.' It’s actually an extension of a lesson I learned in Shotokan karate –- the idea being that there are times in one’s training where you have to focus carefully on a single area of your karate in order to improve it (i.e. contractive), and other times where you need to paint with broader brush strokes, taking in large swathes of kinesthetic information all at once(i.e. expansive).  It’s the difference between correcting your foot positioning in back-stance, for instance, versus memorizing all of the movements of a kata so that you can begin to work on it at a deeper level.  To tie this back to Mandeville, what struck me so much about Chism's paper was how it offered a reading of conversion and conquest in Mandeville that was both aligned but vibrantly distinct from my own argument that I made in my dissertation. I focused on the matter of conversion in the text as well, but by focusing squarely on the objects of potential conversion (Jews, Saracens, and Mongols as they appear in the text), I overlooked the anecdotes that she explored in such marvelous detail; and as she revealed in her paper, those portions of Mandeville actually had much to say about the very topics and issues I saw explored in other sections of the text. I was so grateful for her paper as a result, because it reminded me, among many other things, to widen the lens as I work on Mandeville in the future.

I also enjoyed the Ocean Translations session tremendously, in no small part because my inimitable co-blogger (who has, I’d like to add, done an impossibly amazing job at keeping this blog alive while I’ve been digging myself out of the insanity of the past several months!) gave a fantastic paper on The Man of Law’s Tale. I honestly cannot think about MoL, Custance, or, even more broadly,“women who float in boats” (her words) without thinking immediately of Kristi. I’ve heard her present on Custance many times, and I was especially struck this time around by her observation that oceans function as “containers of history” in MoL. She explored the wide array of allusions to Biblical narrative that appear in the passages describing Custance’s rudderless boat rides, and argued convincingly that these ocean passages and the analogies within them serve as a human attempt to connect the land (the containable) with the ocean (the uncontainable). 

The rest of the papers in this session, including one by our fellow UofR compatriot Sharon Rhodes, were wonderfully strong and interconnected as well.  I absolutely loved the fact that the papers were split evenly between Old and Middle English texts and yet remained strongly conversant with one another.  Sharon's uncannily apt evocation of The Knight's Tale at the end of her paper, in fact, served as a perfect transition from Old to Middle English in the session. A question arose, however, in the Q&A over the panelists’ lack of high theory in their work.  It was certainly true that none of the panelists referred to theorists by name or imposed stark and visible theoretical frameworks around their arguments. I honestly didn’t find any of their papers lacking because of this, but rather saw each panelist explore in nuanced and implicit ways how the texts they focused upon grappled with the ideas of liminality, with the limits of human control (cognitive and otherwise), and with a variety of ontological cruxes about the ocean.  I’m not saying that the question was illegitimate by any stretch, but at the same time, I wondered whether it was entirely fair to imply that these papers were potentially lacking because they didn’t feel the need to evoke high theory directly. The speakers, however, did a more than thorough job of gracefully defending their approaches, and that in and of itself was a pleasure to see. By the end of the exchange, in fact, I had the sneaking suspicion that those responses were exactly what the questioner wished to elicit, because he seemed –- at least as far as I could tell – rather satisfied with their responses.

The following day found me at the session entitled “Legal and Literary Forests in Late-Medieval Britain.” My good friend Valerie Johnson presented on The Manciple’s Tale and argued persuasively for a reading of the forest as an ecological threshold — as “a signal to read  the text as a political tale.” Also on the panel was Karl Steel, who gave a lively presentation on deer carcasses and their legal and symbolic implications (you can find a full version of his paper here).     As I listened to his paper, I was particularly struck by his statement that “inanimate objects are forceful entities,”  because it resonated with my argument about books in Chaucer’s poetry, and would also anticipate many of the arguments made throughout the sessions devoted to animate ecologies. Moreover, the conversation that developed in the Q&A period following these papers was especially inspiring.  I appreciated, in particular, the brief discussion on semantics that arose out of Karl's paper.  Is short, one audience member asked about Karl's use of the word “intention.” What resulted was a lively and encouraging offering up of alternatives (agency, direction, propulsion), with additional comments on the implications of each option made along the way.  I found this moment absolutely delightful, because it highlighted the devotion that we all share for words  -- the fact that we all, by becoming literary scholars, become poets as well, treating each word that we include in a given paper with incredible care. 

Being on its sister panel, I all too happily attended the roundtable devoted to animate objects and ecologies, and I found myself thrilled by the energy (dare I say animation?) of both the presenters and the audience. It was the last session of the day, but the room was filled to the brim.  The panelists spoke on all manner of “things”: divine and secular objects, books, straw, eel traps, color, and stained glass, to name but a few.  Jeffrey Jerome Cohen kicked things off by discussing “prismatic ecologies,” posing the question of whether color "possesses an agency that's useful to think with.” He presented the audience with three images that were at once distinct and convergent.  The first was a c. 1375 image of an artist preparing colors with which to paint.  The image, as Cohen observed, highlights the fact that color is a “thing made of other things.” The second image was a 2012 art installation dated by John Ryan. It is, to put it most simply (and to do it no real justice), a large glob of paint on a white canvas. Cohen observed, however, that by being as minimalistic and “hands off” with the paint as it is, this piece allows color to possess a dignity of its own.  As a result, color is allowed to become something autonomous. Finally, Cohen showed us an image of the River Thames and presented it a kind of sculptor. Through this brief survey of images, Cohen advocated for a multi-hued avenue by which we might begin to approach and consider inanimate objects on their own terms. As always, I was struck by Cohen’s ability to take seemingly disparate objects and concepts and demonstrate their synchronicity, a talent that allowed his paper to become prismatic in and of itself.

The conversation continued with Rebecca Davis and Laura Farina both discussing aspects of The House of Fame.  Davis explored how the text describes objects that contain other objects; she used the terminology of hoarding in an incredibly useful way to explain how this poem presents a kind of conservation that “depends on ceaseless movement and recombination.”  Farina took a different approach by exploring “impersonal affect” in The House of Fame. Like Davis, she observed that the poem is full of “stuff made of other stuff,” but she approached the over-stimulation that the narrator experiences through, in part, the lens of autism, drawing on Temple Grandin’s concept of the squeezebox to explain the narrator’s sensations and experiences in the dream vision.  In the end, both of these papers offered up ways of engaging the so-called “vibrant matter” in the poem, and I was fascinated by how they both spoke so directly to one another while also taking such markedly different approaches.

The other papers in this roundtable were equally enervating – from Alexandra Gillespie's lively exploration of straw (bookmarks?) in medieval manuscripts, to Anne Harris’s examination of stained glass and its multihued implications, to Myra Seaman’s exploration of how we “reckon” with objects deemed divine.  The entire roundtable, ultimately, revolved around that question the lies at the heart of object oriented ontology -- namely, what happens when we make ourselves willing to deprioritize human agency? What happens, in other words, when we allow objects an opportunity to misbehave? This idea arose with Mary Kate Hurley's observation that each of the papers dealt in some way with the idea of objects as mediators and with the idea of mediation itself.  Her comment, and Cohen’s response -- that these panels on objects are in some ways designed to figure out what the objects want, and that we have begun to ask why objects do not always “mediate so compliantly” -- would in many ways anticipate the conversation that would continue in the second animate ecology session the following day, one that I felt very fortunate to be a part of.

To that end, I approached my own session with a nervousness that surprised me at first – that is, until I reminded myself that I was speaking on a topic that was incredibly new to me, a topic that couldn't be further away from the material I'd spent the last several years developing into my dissertation. I viewed the paper as an opportunity and as a challenge to myself -- as a way of remembering, among other things, that I could (and should!) talk about things aside from the Crusades from time to time.  I'll confess that when I arrived in Portland the day before the conference, I was still rather uncertain about the merits of what I was saying in my paper.  I felt dangerously far out in left field.  I also worried about having to wait until the last day to present. Truthfully, however, presenting on that final day was the best thing that could have possibly happened. It gave me an opportunity to listen carefully to the conversations that were going on all around me throughout the week, and I even found ways of incorporating and responding to some of them in my paper -- something I had never had the opportunity to do before this conference.  Watching the array of excellent presentations throughout the week, moreover, both inspired me and reminded me of a very simple fact: that we gather together in these places to share ideas both fresh and mature, both established and speculative -- that all are welcome.

I’ll save the details of the session I was a part of for part two of this post (which will be up and running by Saturday, I think).  I'll close for now by expressing my profound gratitude for the many wonderful encounters I had at this conference. Highlights included being introduced to the fantastic fantasy section of Powell’s (and to the Prester John series by Catherynne M. Valente) by a scholar whose generosity and kindness know no bounds, pretending – with some fellow mischief-makers -- to ignite one anti-medieval tome by way of another (see the adjacent photo), getting encouraging feedback on my book project, and, most of all, enjoying the many opportunities I had to reconnect with so many of my old friends from Rochester.  We had a large contingency at the conference this year, and I was fortunate enough to be able to spend some quality time with each of the folks who attended.  One of my favorite and most vivid images of the conference, moreover, was of the banquet. The hum of enthused voices created a din that you had to shout over, and seeing so many people reconnecting with one another – catching glimpses of friendships that must be on their third or fourth decade in some cases – made me so very grateful. I realized, as I looked up from my table where all of my dear friends sat to the numerous other tables filled with similar reunions, that we will always find ways back into each other's lives, and that we have many more adventures to come.  

To be sure, an outsider could look at this conference, or any other that we frequent, and see only a place for "making contacts" and/or for demonstrating one’s worth in the field. For me and for so many others, however, these conferences are opportunities to forge meaningful connections with people who are as crazily passionate as we are about certain aspects of the world.  Conferences as electric as this one, in other words, invite us to commune with one another -- to recognize that we are all, however different our methodologies, striving to read the world, the creatures that populate it, and the texts we encounter along the way in fresh and innovative lights. 

So, here’s to a delightful week in Portland (I raise a glass with my non-gimpy hand)! I am already looking forward with enthusiasm to our reunion in 2014  -- in elf-inhabited Iceland, no less!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

On Time and the Garden

I've had a whirlwind summer thus far, and it's gone by too fast (especially since there's still so much more work to do . . .). I've tried to research and write, and taken on many (too many) side projects (as my last post mentioned). I've been planning a brand-new ESOL course, which I'll teach in the fall and spring. I had a beautiful road trip to Asheville, North Carolina to help my friend Ali move, and enjoyed spending time there with close friends and exploring both the city itself and the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. I also attended my first New Chaucer Society conference in Portland, Oregon. I found the conference to be, as the best conferences always are, equal parts invigorating and exhausting. All of the panels I attended were excellent and the discussion lively. My own panel went really well. I got great questions, and I felt that all of the papers worked together beautifully to bring out new ideas. I was also lucky enough to be presenting on the same panel with my friend Sharon, who gave her first conference paper, which was excellent. I was reminded once again of how lucky I am to be in a field with such intelligent, warm, lively people.They're people who pose interesting questions and allow for productive dialogue. This conference is set up particularly well for graduate students, with generous financial assistance, a full-day graduate seminar, and a generally welcoming environment in which all are made to feel part of the community. I met some new people and spent time with old friends; I saw many wonderful papers and a really outstanding plenary lecture by Carolyn Dinshaw. Dinshaw spoke eloquently about history and temporality and Mandeville's Travels. I also got to explore Portland a bit and to visit some delightful family members whom I don't see often enough.

Now, after two years away, I am home for a visit to Northern California. The last time I was home, I was here for the birth of my friend Dominique's son. This time I made it to that son's second birthday party. The differences between the newborn baby and two-year-old make concrete for me the temporal distance between my last visit and this one. I am staying with my grandmother in my childhood home, a place filled with memories of the times I had there and the people I've loved who used to live there and who live there still. I still expect to discover my grandfather dozing in a chair when I walk into a new room. I still expect to hear my father's voice calling for me from the next room to come and see something he's discovered in the newspaper or in a book or online. I am aware of the way in which the space I'm in exists relatively unchanged, and only time separates me from previous moments in the same locations. I'm particularly struck by the garden, much grander than it was when I was a child. I spent so many happy hours in that yard, swinging on my swing set or having adventures or pretending to be in a fairy land. My grandpa spent many hours in the yard as well, working in his treasured rose garden and planting new varieties of tomato. Three activities my grandfather loved above all: photography, hiking, and gardening. I would swing and he would garden and we would need no words to express our contentment. I see traces of him everywhere in this garden. Flowers that he planted still bloom each year, their colors bursting forth from the past into the present. My dad loved the garden, too, and had information and opinions on every plant. When we had landscaping done some years back, my father would bake treats and make snacks and bring them out to the gardeners and just talk to them for hours. When I stand in the garden now, I feel comforted in knowing that a space they both loved so much is still thriving.

I was primed by the NCS conference to think about time and the garden. There was so much discussion at the conference of time, history, and space (as with the plenary I mentioned above), of ecologies, of objects. (There was also a whole thread on oceans! I presented on a panel in this thread, and saw some other incredible oceans panels as well.) One of the conference receptions was held in the beautiful Chinese Gardens, a lush location which fostered much happy mingling between scholars young and old (aided by a generous sprinkling of champagne). I had also gone for a walk outside of Portland with my cousins Susan and John, who had explained to me that the topography we saw (verdant trees and brooks) would have covered downtown Portland, a fairly new city, only about a hundred years ago. Trees have been cleared away to make room for streets and buildings, but wild greenery still makes its presence known around the margins of the city. We walked from this landscape past the mowed lawns of suburban Portland, and I noticed the similarities and differences of these landscapes. I also visited the Buffalo Botanical Gardens earlier this summer, a Victorian greenhouse wonderland filled with spaces that seem wild (carnivorous plants lurk in one spot, koi fish swim playfully in another), and yet in which everything is contained and categorized. The rooms are carefully themed and the enclosed nature of the space allows for a great deal of control. With all these experiences this summer, both recreational and professional, I was uniquely prepared to think about urban spaces and greenery as I returned to my childhood home.

Gardens are complex spaces; they're natural and yet cultivated. My grandmother talks brightly to me of one plant that has been carefully chosen and another, right next to the first, which, as she puts it, "the birds brought to us -- a delightful surprise." No matter how deliberately a garden is maintained or controlled (I'm looking at you, topiary), the natural world will make its mark. Animals and weather patterns, for example, cannot be easily regulated. So the garden is both natural and manmade. Gardens are popular spots in medieval literature because of their liminal existence in a variety of categories. They blur the line between public and private, outside and inside. Medieval dream vision poems most often begin in gardens, complicating the distinction between awake and asleep, reality and dreaming. I am reading Bachelard's book on The Poetics of Space right now, and he praises the house for enabling us to dream. In medieval literature, it is often the garden that facilitates dreaming (though Chaucer sometimes writes about falling asleep in bed while reading a good book, a practice all too familiar to me).

There's also a real way in which the garden we have now is the garden of my family's dreams. Much planning and discussion and work and love went into the garden, and everyone felt as if they were witnessing, as the plants grew and blossomed, their floral visions coming to vivid life. And, in some cases, exceeding imagination. Plants grow and change and interact in surprising ways. I walked into the backyard and was astonished at how plants have covered my old swing set. A tiny swing emerges from a tangle of leaves and flowers, barely visible from a distance. When I was young, it was the swing set which defined that backyard space for me. Its crisp lines divided the space and were easily visible from inside the house. Now, from inside, I could almost miss the swing if I didn't know it were there. I moved into this home when I was seven, and the swing set was there waiting for me. It is the same swing set that my dad and aunt and uncle played on before I was born. My grandpa put that swing set up in the yard in 1964 when they moved to this house, but it had been in the family before that, traveling with them from Oxnard to Santa Cruz to Sunnyvale before landing here in Petaluma. My grandparents first set up the swing set around 1950, before my father was born, so he played on it his whole childhood and then I did the same. The swing set always seemed to me a tangible object connecting me to my father's childhood. It connected me to past and future, ground and sky. If I swung high enough, I could see both our own yard and over the fence to the plum trees in the yard next door. There's a freedom for a child in swinging, but a contained freedom, a comfortable kind of freedom. Within the confines of our yard I could have adventures and know that an adult was right around the corner. The swing set always seemed a permanent fixture, rooted in the ground like a metal tree, a part of the yard more reliable than the fleeting petals that visited the garden in spring. The fact that the swing set had in fact been relocated multiple times, that it neither grew from the yard nor originated there, simply didn't fit with my conception of my childhood. Flowers bloomed and wilted, but that swing set was always there, would always be there. Now, as the leaves and flowers cover and enclose the swing, I see that the swing set really has been taken into the garden. The overgrowth has made the set its own, has turned it into a kind of trellis, covered by plants but also holding them up in a kind of symbiosis of metal and paint and flower and leaf. Unlike the inside of the house, the garden really looks nothing like it did when I was little; changes happen and are made to happen. But if I look close enough I can see traces of my childhood, of my dad's childhood and my grandparents' adult life. The swing is still there, hidden amidst the leaves like a secret memory; the baby rosebush my grandpa planted for me in seventh grade (a rough year for me, as for many kids) still blooms amid newer plants. Layers of vegetation and layers of memory intertwine in that space which is both of the house and separate from it. Some of the same plants bloom, but their petals are new each year, highlighting the ways in which temporality and tangibility can be both very fragile and very real.