Monday, September 7, 2009

66) nostalgia and the thirst for knowledge; shifting my focus onto the world

the literary life 9/7/09

So it's labor day, and I'm chilling at home, doing some grading and listening to some instrumental music. The sun's out, the sky's blue, and it's been a quiet morning.

While lesson planning and surfing the web today, I started to feel nostalgic about the academic periods of my life. I felt nostalgic about my senior year in high school when I signed up for a Philosophy of Literature class at the local community college. I felt nostalgic about my undergraduate years at Arizona, when I took religious studies courses and first became interested in studying the Middle East. My senior, I took a year of Arabic, then ended up in the M.A. program for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Those two years in Austin were awesome intellectually. I dove into theory, translated literature, and learned about Islamic Art. I wrote a paper on Mughal women; I wrote a whole thesis on Islamic Numerology. I ended up at UCSB in the Religion program where I delved deeper into theory and my interests shifted to Muslims in diaspora. I studied Sufism. I read Muslim women's autobiographies. I studied Arabic and Punjabi.

In the end I grew lost, but I still carry that person inside me who was enamoured by the thirst for knowledge. I wanted to learn about different histories, literatures, and religious traditions. I wanted to answer the big questions like, how did we arrive at the present? I wanted to answer the little questions like, how does one say "eggplant" in Arabic.

How did I get lost, lose my interest in pursuing an ivory tower life? Was I overwhelmed by having too many interests? Did I think, I have a lot of passion to learn, but how will I earn a paycheck? Did I get so wooed by California I couldn't imagine moving to Nowhere, Idaho to start a tenure track job? It was all of these things, and maybe there were other things. Maybe the writer in me was demanding more attention.

In the end I've come to see that one of the reasons grad school was a struggle for me was because I'm an artist who was trying to be an academic. But then academics can be artists too, and artists can be academic. Maybe if I'd made this shift in my identity earlier, embraced the poet and storyteller inside of me, I would have had an easier time in graduate school. The fact is, though I felt caught between artist and academic, I had many wonderful intellectual awakenings in graduate school. I miss having those specific kinds of awakenings. In my writing, I have awakenings, but I've been focusing on myself. Maybe it's time to shift back to the world--in my writing and in my reading.

After I left graduate school, I ended up getting a teaching credential, and now I teach high school. And every day I still learn new things. I'm still thirsty for knowledge. This summer I took a creative writing class online as well as a literature class online. The literature class has been like guided independent study, but in a way, so was graduate school. The class has reminded me of the things I valued about those years drifting between university campuses.

When I left graduate school, I also abandoned the academic in me. I embraced the teacher in me and the poet in me. But the triad is incomplete without the academic in me. I don't think I realized this until today. It's the part of me that wants to know--that focuses her attention on the world. The part of me that is interested in history, languages, religion, and culture. I think I've been neglecting her, but I need her. My grandmother visited me in a dream last night and spoke to me. Maybe this is what she was trying to tell me. The dream took me back to Pakistan, to other selves buried deep inside me.

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