For weeks I have been woken by a woodpecker. Sadly, not my husband’s. It sounds like construction inside my head, its knocking not quite rhythmic making it hard to sort out neatly into dreams. The sound echoes off of the strange slants of my bedroom ceiling entering my consciousness the way the bird enters the ailing tree.
Awake earlier than we want my husband holds my hand and gives it a light squeeze. I feel a rush of pain and remember the injury I sustained rolling around on the floor at a dinner party. It was a post season celebration of Destination Imagination, and the parents
had got to act out our engineering challenge of building a paper tower. If it sounds confusing it was. After failing to build a tower we then needed to play the roles of paper and paper clips in real life. As a method actor in childhood I understood the mindset of my crumbled paper and threw myself into the part. Body folding in ways it shouldn’t I tossed myself aside flinging out my arms in utter desolation. Doing so I whacked the top of my hand on a coffee table and sustained some sort of odd acting injury. If you think I was the weirdest adult in the room I have video evidence that this is not true. I don’t quite know how a post it tower can be phallic, but acted out by 40 somethings in some way it could be. Who knew that the reverberations of two years of our children working and playing together would result in one of the worst videos ever. Or that a handful of months later I would still be nursing my hand.
This weekend I spent two days in Boston at my mother’s retirement dinner and symposium. Amongst academic talks deans and students and professors came together to express their appreciation for the way she shaped their careers and their lives. From my pre teen years I have teased my mother, picked at her quirks. At its best my ribbing was affection, its worst destruction. She is still often a punch line and material for my writing, as well as my therapy. This was a wonderful weekend as a string of toasts that revealed to me the richness of her work, and patience and dedication she was able to show her field, her colleagues and herself. At the end of the day she told the story of arriving at Radcliffe at 17 and how she grew up at Harvard.
I grew up here – and as it turns out have grown (almost) old here. I can trace the stages of my life in paths and buildings. I knew from the moment I heard my first Stanley Hoffmann lecture in “War” in Emerson that I wanted to do this. I was an undergrad in Social Studies at a moment when every seminar turned into an anti-Vietnam teach-in. Each moment of my life has its physical spot. Studying for exams in a bathing suit on the roof of Barnard Hall; my dissertation defense in the basement of the faculty club, my first love affair in Winthrop House, the yard where I pushed Anna’s stroller, classrooms where I struggled to deliver my first lectures, and then after laptops, invented ways to keep students’ attention. In this list of memories tied to Harvard there is the exhibition of my husband’s collection of Chinese Scholar’s Rocks at the Sackler shortly before his death.
I can say these grounds and faces were for me what the associations of home town are for others. I’m not alone in this. It’s bizarre, I know, but I’ll quote Hegel on the Greeks: “Their grand object was their country in its living and real aspect; — this actual Athens… these Temples, these Altars, this form of social life…these manners and customs.” This geography, its concrete particulars, is identity.
Her life will go on and so will Harvard. Yet they will forever feel the echoes of each other.
Killing time at the airport for my flight home Prince’s “I would die 4 u” played at 9 am. The soundtrack of my coming of age was made up of Price and David Bowie. This has been a tough year for magical musical men. My birthday present from my first serious boyfriend was the Sound and Vision Box set, complete with a laserdisc a decade before I owned a DVD player. I would open the box to stroke the disc, looking at its unmarred circle imagining us married and playing it together when the technology finally caught up to Bowie’s vision. None of that came to be. But the narrative arc of Ziggy Stardust brought music closer to my main medium of storytelling. I superimposed my own risks and adventures with the man who stole the moon. In the airport I am literally moved by Prince’s song. I am bouncing, in some ways more and other ways less than I did my freshman year in college. It was the song I blared to wake me from the stupor of inorganic chemistry. There was no way to zone out when I was getting pumped up. My mind is blown that there will be no new music from these men. But it is full of the echoes of the sound (and vision) of what they have created and I have lived.
There it is again. The woodpecker is only searching for breakfast, but it is changing my outlook. More than that it is eating away at the tree, making it less stable with each passing morning. The marks it makes will never leave.
Through insult and injury, sound and vision, working and retiring, acting and living, nothing is ever completely over. It all echoes.