A Pensieve for Your Thoughts

Leaning back on a deck chair, front legs off the ground--not enough to be precarious, but enough to push against calf muscles. Feet rooted to earth by the interplay of Newton, eyes locked on the stars. The skies here aren't ideal for stargazing. We're in a bit of a bowl, with the mountain for which the town is named rising up on three sides, and so many trees that the ring of the horizon is furred and vague in the black of night. But it's also miles in any direction to proper civilization, so I guess the lack of light pollution balances out the abbreviation of the starry sphere.

Millions of miles away, distances beyond imagining, globes of hotly burning gases are... not suspended, but self-contained in pockets separated from one another by vast, empty space. Scientists have found ways to fill the void with their math and telescopes, but it doesn't erase the sense of lonely insignificance. Basking in the feeling is a bit melancholy, it's true, but there is also a soothing element to it. I think perhaps it comes from what we like to call perspective.

The scuffle of feet on wood and clack from the gate latch bouncing shut. No longer alone with the stars, but not quite in society either. You are quiet too, in my daydream. So much talking, so much catching up and concern. I have been torn between the childish desire to avoid you, because everybody wants to be with you and I don't want to be 'everybody,' and the human desire to say hello, ask how you've been, mention that thing that made me think of you recently. So perhaps it's no surprise that if I wanted to orchestrate a meeting it would be here on the rooftop, when we have both drawn away.


What words would I make you say, if I could? There are too many questions that dare not be asked. And history suggests that I've tried often to reach out to you, but rarely with a response.

Writing a story suggests a rhyme and a reason, but sometimes they don't exist. Sometimes it's nothing but miscommunication and random moments of connection, glad in their own way, but confined to that time and place. I guess I just don't know what to make of the awkward silences. That's why, when we sit together on the deck above the old classroom (for all I know, it exists only in memory, perhaps demolished during recent renovations) in this moment in my head, we aren't speaking. Because somehow it's more gracious, less fumbling, and though there aren't any words to speak, it's still enough just to sit with you.


Reality Checkpoint

Cambridge is a city, but it doesn't always feel like it, especially when you spend all your time amongst the colleges. These are concentrated in the older part of town that is nestled in a curve of the River Cam, and beyond the river, in what is a less densely populated area that gradually blends into countryside. On the other side, this part of town is bordered by a large number of greens and common areas, from Jesus Green on the northeastern side down to Christ's Pieces and Parker's Piece. The only side that isn't thus distinguished from the rest of the city is the south side, and even that feels as if it has a boundary in the form of Lensfield Road, which is wider and handles a higher volume of traffic.

Clearly, I am not the first person to recognize the discombobulating shift that takes place when you walk from the western side of town toward the eastern side. I know this, because in the middle of Parker's Piece, there is a towering streetlight at the junction of the two walking paths that cut across the roughly rectangular green at its diagonals, and this streetlight is locally known as the Reality Checkpoint. The idea, of course, is that there is an entire, intensely self-absorbed world on one side of town, and when you pass the streetlight, you're entering the real world with all the shocks attendant on that experience.

The ivory tower of academia is a funny thing. You can lose your thoughts in the vast reaches of space, contemplating stars and time or whatever lofty things you like, but as big as you may think, the humble world is unchanged when you stop looking through your telescope and start looking out your window. It's easy to grow monsters in your mind--and often just as easy to kick them out with a dose of fresh air.

I had my own little reality checkpoint this morning, as I tried to remain calm and focused enough to read through objections to Descartes's real distinction argument without panicking over all the things that are sure to go wrong this afternoon: the questions won't be on things that I've looked at closely, I'll forget all of the fine-grained distinctions that I need to keep straight, my supervisor will once again be deeply disappointed by my inability to respond to his feedback on previous essays, I'll completely miss the point and write several hundred words arguing an irrelevant point... There are so many ways this could go wrong.

This paper has been especially painful for me, because I'm not used to being so thoroughly aware of my shortcomings without being able to remedy them. When I got a sense of what my supervisor was looking for with my first essay, I went into Easter break with the determination to master universals and Abelard, and write the clearest, most focused response that I could, far surpassing my first, admittedly poor attempt at Boethius. Noble enough, as sentiments go, but quickly dashed when I sat down to read a summary encyclopedia entry and found myself struggling to get through each paragraph. The lowpoint, at which I resigned myself to making a hash of my second essay too, was when I spent two hours reading three sentences from Abelard's Glosses on Porphyry, and could make neither head nor tail of them.

I think the pre-test anxiety was too great to be sustainable, though. Not that I was nauseated or anything. In that sense, I'm usually just fine. But having reached a point of personal despair over my inability to meet my supervisor's expectations, I sort of fell out the other side in the middle of real life (this has actually been happening a lot lately, but I guess when you've gone down the rabbit hole once it gets easier the next time around). For me, that moment meant realizing that I was going to take the test, I was going to give it my absolute best, and whatever happened would not change who I am by a single iota.

It sounds silly, doesn't it? I think I face this a little too often: the feeling that if I get less than the very best grade, I must have done something wrong, slacked off a little too much or maybe just failed to be smart enough for that class. Every year, I promise myself I won't do it, and every year, I, Sisyphus, climb the hill again. But in what feels like a precursor to an intense bout of senioritis, I'm just not as ready to identify myself with the numbers on my transcript right now. There's a lot more to life, and while I should do the best that I can now, I don't want to miss out on the other riches to be had, whether that means lingering over a letter, listening to blackbirds at twilight, or spending an entire day ambling around Cambridge with a friend while making hobbit-frequent pauses to eat. These things take away from studying, but they certainly don't impoverish me, and they're probably what I really want to take away with me from these five months anyway.



 We pilgrims dress in the camouflage of gray:
Not truly hidden from sight--not properly invisible,
Simply the nondescript, the travelers who
Wear smiles just enough, speak just enough
To be unremarkable and readily forgotten.
We are hiding, you see.

Under the plain clothes, our hearts ache,
Forever tasting the bittersweetness of undoing beauty
As it seeps into joints, thoughts, unending daydreams.
But it is a pain contained: we melt into words
That lie dormant on our tongues,
Hiding out of sight when lips spread to utter
The merely commonplace and mundane.

Oh, but there is a meeting and a moment:
For a few days, brief span of life's spectrum,
We find one another. We walk together.
And we flow into a softer space,
Where thoughts, words, images recognize each other,
Set fire to the fellow soul;
In the burning, there is joy.

The white feather of the dove.
The black feather of the raven.
Such tokens, I give you.
Not as symbols: soft wisp of edge, delicately veined;
Not as physical objects: soaked with mysteries and chants.
All is the simplicity of itself
And the communication of every other.
For at the crossroads, we part--doomed wanderers,
Yet not lonely: there is the starry heaven.