I've been fighting sprawl. I tore apart my bedroom on Friday, all the way down to the point of altering the way I fit my clothes into drawers. August, the dawn of the academic school year, is really my own personal January. Maybe it's because I can't really stomach the idea of "new year" in the depths of winter. More likely it's that August is the month of Having To. No amount of Preferring Not To will prevent the coming of the new school year, and August means that I have to push back against my own comfortable disorder. Sometimes that means I decide that I have to roll all of my jeans and get rid of a lot of t-shirts, probably because it's a way to avoid the rest of the Having To. And sometimes it's because something needs to feel fresh, needs to feel like it's starting over, and it's a lot easier to start with my socks and hooded sweatshirts than with anything else.
Still, in a week, I'll have four classes and an independent study that need to be well organized for my benefit and for theirs. And every semester, I want it all to be better, faster, stronger. Every August, I want it to be the right start. Every August, it isn't quite right. Most particularly because it's happening, again, in August. I said I'd do it little by little, through June, through July. And I do some of that--I make notes about the big changes, new assignments, what to add or subtract from the semester plan--but I never get to actually making the reading schedule before now, never change all the dates on the syllabus until just yesterday. Nevertheless, those things do get done. I've written the new paper assignments and have come up with activities that mean everyone will have to be responsible about the reading. I've Had To, and so I Did.
All of this, though, is also me trying some diversionary tactics on myself. Because despite all of this fresh start business, August is also always a time of ending to me. It's the end of summer, and it's not just that it's the end of "vacation" (how much summer isn't a vacation now that I'm an academic lifer is another post a lot of other people have already made, so I won't make it again). It's that it's the end, too, of the long light, the warm weather, the peaches and fresh berries and the rumor of good tomatoes. The things I love best. Baseball. (Hockey is coming, I hope, to buffer the pain, but more on that later.) It is the end of the long, quiet days of methodical work.
And so: an experiment in elegy. I'm going to write a series of blog posts, each devoted to its own variation on the theme, which will also help to corral the sprawl.
The elegy is, by its very definition, a lament for what has been lost, and it is a literary form near and dear to me. (I once fancied myself an Anglo-Saxonist. Elegy is ninety percent of our material.) I've thought about this for a bit, though: is that the right choice during a season when I am predisposed to melancholy?
I did what I always do when I am uncertain: I thought about Beowulf. It is 3182 lines of elegy, bidding goodbye to not only its titular character but also to an entire way of life. Again, I questioned the idea: is saying goodbye the way to begin anything?
But of course it is. The elegiac impulse is also to take stock, to order, to recollect. It is to catalogue and to assess. In the poem's end, Beowulf asks Wiglaf to collect some of the treasure from the slain dragon, so he can look at it before he dies. He says (and this is from Seamus Heaney's translation, which is lovely and wonderful and what I recommend if you don't want to get fantastically cozy with Klaeber's edition and an Old English grammar textbook),
"Away you go: I want to examineYes, it sounds heavy. But this is also Beowulf looking back on his legacy, and, a few lines later, he gives his thanks that he's able to see what he has done. (Those pagan warriors: all about seeing the payoff. Not so much about planning for the future.) And he is, as the sword-breaking badass he is and has been, completely satisfied; he's an old man with a dead dragon and a centuries-large hoard of treasure, all to his credit. (Herein lies the breaking point for the poem: the greatest warrior cannot be the greatest ruler--their priorities will never be the same, but this isn't about that so back to blogging experiment.) And he institutes a new beginning: he passes his kingdom to Wiglaf, and though the poem tells us--in content and by its form--that the Geats are making a solid break from a way of life they have known, are bidding goodbye to their last hero, it's not without some hope. Wiglaf learned how to do the right thing, and it's in his hands the Geats are left.
that ancient gold, gaze my fill
on those garnered jewels; my going will be easier
for having seen the treasure, a less troubled letting-go
of the life and lordship I have long maintained." (ln. 2747-2751)
I think--I hope--that if I can take some stock, to order this tiny universe, the transition won't feel the way it always does (chaotic, occasionally doom-laden, depending on the weather). And even if it has, I'll still have some writing to show for it.
I promise it won't all be terribly serious. I have a story to tell you about a thirty-year-old learning to ride a bicycle. It's part of all of this beginning and ending.