Gångna tider

I feel as though I’ve sliced off a chunk of my life and let it fall away. In the midst of a serious basement cleaning, I came across a cardboard box taped shut and marked “Scandinavian Stuff to Store.” I doubt that the box was opened on its move from a former home to this one, where I’ve lived for 28 years. I imagine one of the friends who helped me through that difficult move transported it from its attic lodging to the old coal room of this basement. The coal room turned out to be a poor place to store precious things; its walls wept whenever the ground around the house was soaked. But how precious could “Scandinavian Stuff” be?

The tape peeled off easily, having lost its adhesive. Inside were spiral notebooks with the University of Chicago seal on the cover, along with the price, 60¢. Each corresponded to a class I took on my way to three degrees in Scandinavian Languages and Literatures. (Yes, I’m a bird as rare as the Chicago phoenix.)

  One notebook was a literary history on pages of graph paper, with titles of works charted alongside public events of the same year. I remember how refreshing it was to read Scandinavian novels in their historical context after my encounter, during my first year of general courses, with New Criticism, which insisted that nothing but the text is of interest. Another notebook recorded all that I was learning about sound changes from Proto Germanic to Old Norse and through all its phases and geographical divisions down to present day Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian. I had once even known the patterns that distinguish Færoese from Icelandic. The notebooks affirmed my sense that I was a thorough and meticulous notetaker, as I read under the vaulted ceilings of my favorite Neogothic reading rooms, and as I followed discussion in class. Lectures were not the standard mode of a UC education.

The box of Scandinavian stuff reminded me how much I loved all that learning, how pleasurable it was to record new, amazing bits of information and then let them merge into place in a synthesis that made me feel as though I understood some facet of human experience, esoteric though it might be. For a moment I imagined myself reading through the notebooks again to recover all that knowledge I no longer retain. But they were too musty and smelly. Turning the pages made me cough. Instead I recycled the best of the bunch and dumped the rest in the garbage. With that reasonable, practical decision went some of the joy.

Years ago I found a shoebox of notecards for my Master’s thesis in the garage and felt great relief at clearing them out. This time, the residue is more like grief. I suspect the “stuff” I accumulated for my Ph.D. dissertation still lurks somewhere in this house, but finding it will not cheer me up. Tossing away the tangible evidence of my schooling leaves nothing to protect me from losing the sensory memory of it. I also realize that my daughters know little about who I was in my twenties and how passionate a learner I was. They know that I went to the University of Chicago and that it’s probably the reason I enjoy “The Big Bang Theory” so much. I knew those guys in the place where, as the t-shirt reads, “the odds are good, but the goods are odd.” I relished the Life of the Mind we odd ones came there to live.

If I’m going to be true to the spirit of my education, I should take up some new subject and fill new notebooks as joyfully as I filled the ones the city’s trucks hauled away this morning. I may be less thorough, less meticulous. The adhesive in my brain is nearly as worn as the adhesive on the tape around that precious, waterlogged box. And I probably ought to send in my end-of-the-year donation to the University of Chicago so that some other small town Midwesterner from a working-class family can enjoy the privilege of mental immersion in thrilling “stuff.”

 

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