Getting Educated, or, Carrying the Gunny-sack

Posted by on Aug 14, 2012 | 0 comments

I’ve been thinking about my higher education in light of reading Mary Clearman Blew’s wonderful memoir, This is Not the Ivy League, (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2011). Blew is of my generation. She grew up on a farm in Montana, graduated from a one-room schoolhouse, and “escaped,” as she says, and pushed her way through graduate school, against the pressures of the ‘50s—inherited from our parents—to be a conventional housewife. There I am, like Blew, with all that stuff in my head: “Get dinner on the table every night at six,” “Be the quiet domestic support behind your man,” “Ambition for a wife and mother is a slightly unsavory word.” Not that I said this to myself, or that anyone said it to me, as they did to Blew, but it was in the air. I was the oldest, carrying a gunny-sack of invented responsibility. (Look up gunny-sack if you’re too young for that word.) But I had a burning desire, not invented by me but as much a part of me as my arms and legs. As it was for Blew.

Desire for what? It felt like a desire to get out, as Blew put it. Get out of invisibility, get out of role-playing, get out from under my father’s domination of my mind, get out of what felt like prison and was really my mother’s generation’s prison, not mine. It feels to me as I look back, as if I were the possessor of a deep underground river that pushed up around rocks and tree roots, coming up whenever there was a crack in the surface. It was like a poem, you might say. There was no exact paraphrase for it. It was impossible to articulate, but words could surround it so that the outline of it might be felt. The more words, the better.

I think I will write more about my education. I have an essay in my memoir, Driving with Dvořák, called  “I Am Sick of School,” where I get a start on that. I think I will next pick up at the end of high school and write, as Mary Blew does, primarily of college and graduate school. I hadn’t thought much about that time, since then, (it seems like yesterday), but her book turns me back to it—the hours bent over the books when the children were sleeping, the strain of trying to be a good mother and a good student, of watching my marriage deteriorate as the gap between what I wanted and what my husband wanted widened, of watching the gap widen between who I came to see I was and who he was. I should not have married so early, but the needs that that implies, for a while, trumped the other. Or, I thought they were compatible. Sometimes they are, but when you’re seventeen, it’s not bloody likely.

There was one afternoon. I stood by the window of my graduate student office at the University of Arkansas, way up on the top floor of Kimpel Hall. It was a Sunday. I had my stacks of books and notes. I had remarried and my new husband was looking after the children while I was devoting the entire day to study. It was a gorgeous fall day as only the Ozarks can be gorgeous. I could see across the campus from there—bright red leaves, yellow falling leaves, blue sky, blue haze of hills in the distance. What, oh what, was I doing? Why, oh why, was I leaving my children with their stepfather on a beautiful, precious weekend day, and cloistering myself with this dusty language, language, language, once-twice-three times removed from the perfect, vibrant, tangible world? I had no answer. I cried a bit and went back to my books.

It was that underground river. Trying now to speak of it in other words, I think I would call it my longing to use myself, to find and use all there is of me, heart and mind. to use every part my parents were unable to use in themselves. To leave nothing stunted in me. A grand wish. At worst, it can turn into a fierce solipsistic trajectory. At best—can’t it widen both heart and mind to include everyone and everything? At best, it is the Bodhisattva vow, to postpone entering Nirvana until all beings are saved.

P.S. Speaking of memoir, I just returned from listening to a panel discussion by Rainier Writing Workshop faculty members Sherry Simpson, Mary Clearman Blew, Dinah Lenney, and Scott Nadelson, on “Why Genre Matters.” I didn’t have a chance to say anything in the open discussion, so I will take my turn by blogging about this next week.


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