|… And I’m never going back to my old school|
—Steely Dan, circa 1974
It’s not, as Thomas Wolfe would have it, that you can’t go home again, it is more like: why would you want to? Me? I was of the Fleetwood Mac generation, so on the subject of return my view was always more resolute, more defiant, possibly even more – dare I say it? – philosophical. More like Lindsay Buckingham, vowing:
been down one time
been down two times
and I’m never going back again
Of course, words are cheap. It is deeds that are determinative. And, caught now in the midst of a deedly act: here was I in the flesh, with a carload of baggage. History incarnate—in the form of a couple of blooming kids—and the woman who had helped me make them (!)—their mom by my side. The woman I had met, two decades or more, right
– right outside this very front windshield. Inside
building . . .
Inside of which, she and I had listened in awe, assisted, served, and even belittled various professors, wrote term papers, led lectures, kissed in front of that funky statue of George, and recited the Athenian Oath. The oath whose various parts we lip-synched daily as we passed beneath it. I recall reading it aloud with fervor, explaining to her why these words would all make us better citizens of the world.
Ah, the naive passion of youth. Don’t we all wish it would remain intact forever!
So, “never going back again?” Only if the school ceased to stand; only if the words were suddenly expunged; only if we physically couldn’t. Otherwise . . . why not?!
But, man-oh-my, don’t things change, once you do go back. On the other hand, as long as you are prepared for that, as long as you don’t harbor any gestalts to guide your input, as long as you don’t allow moribund ways of seeing to impose their will and besot pattern recognition; as long as you are open to processing the new, as long as you are not wed to the past, then going back home again is not a dungeon. Or the torture chamber we often make it out to be.
Case in point: back here at my old school – The Maxwell School of Public Affairs and Citizenship at Syracuse University— this statue of Abraham Lincoln has always graced the thin swatch of lawn just in front. Only now—that they have erected a new multi-million dollar building to unify (or consolidate?) all the social sciences under one roof, the statue of honest Abe has been rotated 90 degrees. Now they have him facing North, rather than East, as he did during the years I was scurrying up the marble steps behind him.
Honest Abe. As only Abe could be: deep in thought, troubled, standing alone. Likely fretting about the schism in the Union, the nation he would try to bind – by force if necessary – to preserve.
Reminding us, I suppose (if we really require reminding, if we really choose to use our noggins) how tricky (and relative) policy matters can be. There is Abe pressing violence as a political solution and, for his wisdom, his deep reflection, and his steely determination, Abe managed to become a glorified national hero. Now, you take another one who sat in Abe’s seat a century and more later, still sitting there today, in fact . . . and that pretender goes and tries to act in kind (although he skims over the deliberative part) and . . . well, let’s just say there won’t be as many statues to Ol’ W scattered around the country at various institutions of higher learning in 150 years.
We drive the kids around the grid. Point out streets and businesses and recount routines from a life once lived. Syracuse still as run-down as ever: the town being far more tattered than the gown. Who would ever have wanted to live here? But we did, and we were happy. And, today, decades later, tooling around the city makes us recall, then appreciate, that fortunate past through the eyes of an indeterminate present.
Actually, the images that come are a mix of then and now. Viewing today but seeing yesterday. Separating the two and trying to describe each. The act that the kids co-experience is, of course, influential over the production that results. The fact that they are witnessing it for the first time means that their Mom and I have a lot more explaining to do. Filler, history, atmosphere, background. Saying it all aloud, though, changes it all somehow. Converts it into something that is different than it was, as we remember it, as it now is.
It takes a while but we locate their Mom’s first abode, the oft-repainted three-storey she rented when we first started dating. I tell a rather personal story about that time and she blushes; the kids feign shock, but agree that it is actually quite cute. I can’t repeat the tale here—you all being strangers—but it basically revolves around modern love rituals, old-fashioned modesty, and the precise moment I determined this was the woman for me.
We move on to a couple of places the Mom and I occupied together. A man and woman emerge from one, holding hands. The guy wearing expensive-looking shorts and loafers; the gal sporting a blonde bun, a sun dress, and a Long Island demeanor. They briefly regard me taking pictures of their home. I feel like I should explain but when I do (“I used to live here, do you mind?”) they simply turn and stroll silently down the lane. Like, “who cares? Snap away.”
The apartments are just as shabby as ever. What I realize, looking at those dwellings through today’s eyes, is just how poor we were; at the same time, we didn’t have the sense enough to realize it, or I suppose to care. We were at our happiest. Living on nothing. 130 bucks for a couple of rooms, a kitchen, a shower, a toilet. Seemed like a lot at the time. All I recall is that we felt privileged because we could afford a steak once a week and occasionally a 4 dollar bottle of wine. We survived on fish and pasta and plenty of salad most other days. Enjoyed our Sunday ritual of omelets and bagels and the New York Times. Did our laundry on Fridays at a place down the road, while we drank coffee, ate pancakes and read and discussed the classics of sociology. In moments of reverie we talked about opening an egg shop when we retired – maybe somewhere along the Northern Californian coast.
Remembering these bits aloud –- finishing off each others’ recollections with the intensity of grease sizzling on an iron skillet— the kids seem stupefied.
“Who were those people, Dad?” our daughter asks.
“And where did they go?” wonders our son.
When will they come back? Which is what going back again enables us to see.
Nowadays, when I really screw up there‘s a speech I give my wife about how
person wasn’t me. Well, of course, it was me, but not the me I am now. At least that’s what I tell her. “I have changed,” I say; “grown,” “developed new shading,” “I’ve become someone else, honey, I really have!” Someone somehow different.
My wife calls it “bailing out,” “making excuses,” “passing the buck,” “disavowing responsibility.” Which seems like the substitution of complicated internal contortions for what is probably just a simple altered existential state. On the other hand, that sounds kind of like a disavowal, too.
Hm. Maybe . . . could my wife be right?
But, then again—and after spying what my old school did to old Uncle Abe – I think that maybe it would be better to think about any of this alleged change in terms of “ontology shifting”, or “essence slipping” . . . or some other hi-concept coinage that I will have to perfect later. The key idea here is about vectors. About viewing a thing from a different slant. This is akin to what happened to contemplative Abe: the statue remains the same—hunkered down, bearing the weight of the nation’s tumultuous, tormenting moment square on his shoulders; yet, the viewing changes: getting turned, over time, ninety degrees. The fact is that today, the way we now view the Abe in the Maxwell foreground—is just how we have come over the centuries to regard Abe, himself: from an austere, simpler world to one built up around him. The nasty struggle remains the same, but its stakes, and value, and meaning has changed. Abe’s solitary battle—testing, wrenching, searing, defining—affected an entire nation. Viewing Abe’s icon today, in the space that he presides over and fills, we see that our understandings of him, his nation, and ourselves, has changed. It may only be us, approaching from a different angle, true; but
is precisely why we should return, go back once more, revisit life - the past, our lives, our spaces of becoming. In that way we can see more the old things anew.
Mike Campbell once wrote a tune that Don Henley supplied the words for. Henley then sang: “you can never look back, never look back.” But I don’t think that is right. I think we may often prefer not to look back because we fear what we might find: that things will have changed, or possibly that they haven’t; that we have changed . . . or perhaps that we haven’t.
Or perhaps it is more about learning than finding.
Schools are where we learn. But schools can be anything, anywhere. Schools can be on the streets, in an apartment, a laundromat, a bed; schools can be on TV, in a jobplace. So if you ask me, I don’t think going back to one’s old school is a bad thing – even if it is actually (of all things) a school that one goes back to.
And precisely because this is so, I prescribe traveling to the schools in our past. I recommend returning; going back or looking back once more. It seems like we often favor travel to new places over old. And to the degree that this is true, I suspect it is because we fear what we might learn about ourselves, from the places of our past. Now updated, through different eyes, with newer understandings.
What it all means?
Don’t be afraid of approaching the statues in the garden (and the apartments, the words on the wall, the memories in the bin) from another angle. If we can see the scene today from the distance of the years, it may not be a wasted exercise. Not at all.