Saturday, April 2, 2011

Columbia v. Yale

All the decisions I made in my twenties were well-considered, wise, and based on long-range vision into what I knew my future should bring.

Yeah. Well, I tried. You too?

What in our evolutionary history made us such Monkey See, Monkey Do creatures in our youths? Is this really necessary? In sixth grade, as I see now in close-up every time my son comes home from school with another stunning tale of kids' inhumanity to kids, children are learning that to be different, to stick out even a quarter of an inch from the edge of the norm, is to invite assassination. No, really. It's a psychic death that is visited on the hapless different, but it plays out in the physical realm: look different, act different, and get ostracized--no one sits with you at lunch; distasteful glances are hurled your way as you are passed by on the playground.

So you learn, very quickly learn, to follow the leader.

I imprinted on my friends, as the gosling does on whatever is near at that tender age that can stand in for mother, and followed them wherever they led. Not that they weren't going to the ideal places, thank goodness. But if they should have decided to head for Sioux City after graduation instead of New York, I suppose I should have followed them there.

Now, the love of literature was something I arrived at all by myself. (Surely it had nothing to do with the fact that my mother was a writer manque or my father declaimed Shakespeare all the time, right.) I got a job in publishing right after college only because I couldn't find one in retail or advertising, but I assume it was my subconscious leading me to where I really ought to have been, so I'll claim this development as my own, too. And falling in love--bam, all in one moment, just as they write about in books--with the new editorial assistant who joined our ranks was another step on my very own, unique path. That he and I wrote poetry obsessively, sending it to one another through inter-office mail (little did the mail boy suspect what was in his silver cart, hidden in dirty yellow envelopes with long series of scratched-out names: typed pages lyrical, yearning, obtuse), was either a happy accident or foreordained by the universe.

But when he decided to go back to school, leave publishing in order to pursue a purer form of living with literature, I regressed. All the way back to the gosling years. I decided I must do exactly the same thing.

Only we were going to be doing it in different cities, because he got into Yale and I didn't. The shame of it--Columbia instead! Too, he had gotten a scholarship while I didn't, which felt like the final insult. Until I started visiting on weekends, and then I got the rest of the slap in the face.

What a lush place Yale was, insulated, warm and providing all. We would sit in the graduate student lounge in blond-wood booths, drinking coffee and discussing hermeneutics with other comp lit students. We would go to the library, and there on the reserve shelves I would find, lined up like steadfast tin soldiers, twelve copies of the book I desperately needed, while Columbia's single copy had been taken out of Butler Library by a faculty member three years before and never replaced. It was tough luck at Columbia. They didn't even have a decent place to sit until all hours discussing imperative b.s. The campus was the most off-putting place I've ever been, and I was always a stranger. I rode the subway two hours a day to be desperately lonely there. And I went ten thousand dollars in debt. I did make one--count 'em, one--friend the whole year. He turned out to be one of the best friends in life I'll ever have, though, so that is not a complaint. Not really.

Yet what I remember most about visiting New Haven has nothing to do with studying. It has to do with place, and the contrast between two places that are as emotively different as two places can be.

Or could this be about how I experienced myself then, always second-best? I will leave that question hanging in the air, and return to the concrete. It is safer there, with ground under the feet.

I remember (even now, remember the look and feel and taste) of the grilled cheese sandwich off the grill at the lunch counter a few blocks off campus. It had not changed since 1946, I think. (The lunch spot, I mean, though this might well be the case with the sandwich, too.) I remember his apartment, white and spare and light-filled, with a rooftop extending out from under one window, where I imagined come summer we would put a couple of lawn chairs and some potted flowers. We did not. I remember the green barette I bought at a little store filled with small objects of luxury and cool, each and every one of which I wanted. The barette surfaces every few years only to go missing again, much like these memories. I remember sitting in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, marveling at the walls of translucent marble through which a milky light seeped. I especially remember walking through Louis Kahn's British art gallery, a building that remains to my mind one of the most perfect examples of the art of architecture I've ever seen.

At the end of the year, I left Columbia. I left the notion of a career in academe forever: perhaps this marked the end of my need to follow others, too. It had not been a well-considered decision, after all. It was probably the competition between Columbia and Yale that convinced me of this. Although maybe if I had gotten in to Yale, the course of my life would have been different. I cannot know that now. Something, I am not sure what, led me out and away. I can only hope I was, and have been ever since, following someone else. Maybe that person is me.

8 comments:

Steve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said...

I am convinced the person you are now following is indeed you, Melissa Holbrook Pierson.

As a creative writer wanna be, I could begin connecting words together like a chain on a VStrom or the miles of Interstate highway that connect New York with San Francisco. I am afraid, however, that no meaning will ever develop from such wanderings. So, it is here that I visit each Saturday morning and find another literary treasure that's easier to follow than any attempts I could make to pen my own.

Thank you for taking the time to share them with us.

Steve

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Might sound trite but I couldn't (and wouldn't) bother to write if there weren't smart and perceptive readers out there. Reading is itself a creative act, and reading well is as hard as writing well.

That said, watch out: I'm about to make a dangerous offer. Steve, I'll give you a spot here (and I'll take a week off). Why dangerous? Well, if it reads like I think it will, I'll be out of a job.

Kevin G. said...

"Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans"
- John Lennon

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Ain't that the truth! Amen.

villanyszerel├ęs said...

I am extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog

Art said...

Hi Melissa: I’m one of those odd and increasingly rare individuals who roam the stacks of libraries, not out of ennui but from the fear that there are books I have yet to read and there is so little time, and can recall both Dewey Decimal and LC access numbers for subjects that have little in common with social networking or transgender personality conflicts. On one such walkabout, I came across your most recent book and was surprised and delighted to find that your mind apparently functions like mine: information is stored and retrieved using RAM, Random Access Memory. Certainly, The Place you Love is Gone has an emotive thread from start to finish, but along the way there are these lightning bolts that come out of nowhere to remind you that much of reality is in a memory, not always a pleasant one, and that the conflict between living in the moment and nostalgia is real and not imagined.
As for me, my memories of the places I loved were less tied to geography and footprints and more with the animals and birds I knew. It is nearly commonplace today to hear a man say he always knew he was a woman and a woman to know she was a man. Less commonplace, but no less important, is what I knew as a child. My inner voice told me that I must be part animal because only with them could I feel alive and in the moment. Of course, I had the requisite family dog which served as confidante, but the essence of dogdom was what I sought and still do.
More later

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Thank you so much, Art! I think the operative word here is indeed "random." That's the way I live . . . following my nose. Sometimes it takes me straight to the rotting carcass. And sometimes straight to something else, a byway.

I can't explain anything. So all I can do is suggest.

And continue wandering in the bookstacks of life.