Jennifer A. Chin (cswallow) wrote,
Jennifer A. Chin
cswallow

Islands

"In some sense," says Dr. Norm Christensen to his class of 90 undergrads, "every place is an island. If you can't see it that way, you're not looking from far enough away."

If that is true, I think, then every place is also connected to another. If you can't see it that way, you're not looking from close enough. In landscape ecology, Dr. Dean Urban impresses upon us that every analysis comes first from the scale of your approach to the problem.

It is Rilke who said, "Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other." We are, by nature, captured in our own skin. We yearn to connect to one another, but all we have are spoken or unspoken words.

I finally start telling people that I've been struggling this semester. A classmate with whom I've never had a true conversation comes up to me after class one day last week, "Are you okay? You don't look like yourself. Where has the joy in your eyes gone? I hate to see you like this." And I do the courageous thing, which somehow is also the vulnerable thing. Actually, I say, I'm having a really tough semester. Yes, I want to talk about it. Let's have coffee.

And when we finally sat down, all he did was ask questions, listen, and offer a perspective from his own life. I offered him an autumn leaf that I'd plucked from a tree that morning. A piece of life, for a piece of mine.

Already I begin to feel better. The weight lifts a bit more every time I say it, Actually I'm having a tough semester. The days aren't so much like molasses. I sleep with the lights on, to wake more swiftly, and yesterday as I studied outside, I looked up to see the sunshine dancing in orange fall leaves. Yesterday I said, You know, I was having a tough semester, but I'm doing a lot better now. Thank you.

We are islands, but we are grounded in the places we came from.

Last weekend, I returned to Northwestern for my five-year reunion.

When I showed up on this campus, a frail and terrified freshman, I remember that one professor's office at Northwestern was classically dusty, made labyrinthine by books and papers and old furniture. It was, I recall, a haven of everything I came to associate with the pursuit of the mind. What began as a paper conference turned into a therapy session. Somehow I could always voice what I was most worried about, and our conferences continued for the next six years - long past my graduation. Between years two and three, the dusty office moved to a new building, but the connection was warm despite the austerity of the walls around us. Last weekend, we met for the first time since 2008, and for the first time it was over coffee and a walk. "You looked like you were on a first date," teased my friend, whom I'd walked past without even seeing.

It wasn't at all, in the sense that the advice gotten and given was built upon a decade of knowing one another.  At the same time it was, in the sense that this was our first meeting as friends, rather than as professor and student. While the sun set the next day, I thought that the entire weekend had been imbued with a sort of first-date quality, in the sense that we came to it with an intentness toward each other, we brought our "A Game." Listen deeply, focus on learning and hearing more than on speaking, on revealing with honesty ourselves. And yet I was also impetuous, outrageous, easy-going, somehow most myself there, with those old friends, than I'd felt even in California.

On Saturday night, Robert and I don't even sleep in beds, preferring to continue our conversation from the floor of the living room near Will until we all fall asleep mid-sentence. I just wanted to be near them - to Xixi, and Steph and Phil and Steve and Chandler and all these people who are as good and dear, only better somehow - I don't worry about my semester then, my heartbreak or direction, what I had to get done. I wanted only to know their fire and determination. Surrounded by warm, clear weather and leaves in mid-shift, I felt proud. All of us were striving toward the thing that rang true. That, even after the bell of inspiration had struck, continued to reverberate in us as we, trembling, plunge forward into an ever-riskier future.

Part of fixing my lost-ness is to simply go forward. To put the time in first, and allow the emotional fixing to sprout from that. It is the way to think about someone who brought me such recent sadness, and craft from it a generous friendship. I realized that part of my challenge this term has been finding applicability in the myriad tasks I have at hand. I am at my heart a practical person, and without a concrete goal to move toward, I can't see how my work is meaningful.  When I have a goal, it doesn't matter how little sleep I get, or how busy I am - I feel light and enthusiastic. Without a goal, the work feels like work.. and I have so many commitments that I become utterly buried.

Finding my concrete goal is the way to turn what has been, into what might be.

I know what is ahead - New York City, conservation and dance. In those things I am connected, and moving. It is at the scale of me, and today, that I want to live better. Waiting for May, waiting for life to get better, requires a passivity that I riot against.

Since that reunion weekend, I've allowed myself to be a part of other people. I've allowed other people to become a part of me.

Yes, there is pain in my eyes. I know you can help me. We are none of us islands, though all of us are. Just as species move from one place to another - some in purposeful journey as a gull might, and some carried by windblown driftwood as a lizard might - so do our thoughts and words reach each other. It's easy to send out "drifter" thoughts, easy to be passive toward the people around us and just wait for someone to come our way. 

It's not enough. I send out gulls. In this way, life flourishes.

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